One of the few non-shitty things to happen in the recently-deceased (see you in hell) year 2020 was that the next generation of Mars rover, Perseverance, was launched, and is currently on its way to the Red Planet, where it will land on February 18. If my local CVS feels comfortable putting up Valentine’s Day crap already, then I figure I can talk about Perseverance, which lands only four days later. So, with that in mind, let’s look at some of the fun details and Easter Eggs NASA and JPL stuck on this robot space-Jeep.
NASA’s probes have a long history of carrying objects and details that are more for sentimental, cultural, or even decorative reasons (like the plaque with the cosmic dick pic on the Pioneer probes, or the other dick pic left on the moon) and this tradition even has a name inside of NASA: festooning.
Perseverance is well-festooned, with lots of fun stuff, so let’s have a peek:
Have you ever noticed those funny-looking joystick-like things on the other Mars rovers? Those are calibration targets, essentially known colours and shapes so the rover’s cameras can be accurately calibrated. That velvety-black lollipop-looking thing in the middle functions as a sundial, as well, because there’s a place for thousands-of-years-old technology on all our space-robots.
On Perseverance’s calibration target, we also have a bunch of little illustrations, almost like they’re pulled from a WingDings font, that includes a sort of timeline of life on Earth: first the solar system, then some DNA, then some microbial life or possibly a tray of sausages or well-formed poops, then some plant life (it looks kinda like a bryophyte of some sort), then a dinosaur, then it looks like the same swingin’ couple from the Pioneer plaque, then a fun sci-fi-ish rocket.
There’s also a quote: Two worlds, one beginning, which NASA says refers “to the idea of Earth and the Red Planet growing out of the same proto-stellar dust.”
There’s another calibration target/palette on the rover, part of an instrument known as SHERLOC (Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals), and which is paired with a camera-instrument named, in a sorta cheaty acronym, Wide Angle Topographic Sensor for Operations and eNgineering (WATSON), because, SHERLOC and WATSON! Get it?
In case you don’t get it, the address of the fictional crime-busting duo of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, 221 Baker St., is inscribed on one of the samples on the target. The other samples include space helmet visor material and other spacesuit materials, to evaluate how they deal with exposure to the Martian environment, and, in a bit of a coal-to-Newcastle/rust-to-David Tracy’s driveway sort of thing, there’s a slice of a Martian meteorite in there, too.
There actually seems to be another Martian meteorite being sent to Mars, as part of the SuperCam calibration target. Shouldn’t we be keeping all the Mars rocks we have on Earth? Send some Earth gravel there if you really want a rock, but I’d think Mars bits are worth keeping here? This one baffles me.
If there’s one thing NASA is always a sucker for, it’s cramming a bunch of names, really, really tiny on a little chip and then sending those tiny, tiny names to Mars. They’ve been doing it since the 1997 Pathfinder missions, and they’re still at it, with 10,932,295 names crammed into those three little squares on the upper left corner of that trapezoidal plaque.
If any aliens find the rover and have really really good eyesight, those people will be famous! Well, at least as famous as anyone is who has been listed in a major metropolitan city’s phone book.
The inscribed drawing there shows earth and Mars getting rays from the same sun, and the rays themselves are actually Morse code, spelling out “Explore as one.” So, if the aliens that find the rover also have their HAM radio licenses, they can read this, and be inspired.
And finally, since Perseverance was launched in 2020, it makes sense it would have something to commemorate the non-Tiger King thing that made the year so miserable: fucking COVID-19.
Despite all the difficulties and madness that this pandemic has caused, it’s remarkable that NASA and JPL engineers still managed to get this rover built, tested, and launched to Mars, and to commemorate this most unusual and difficult set of circumstances, an aluminium plate with the Asclepius, a Greek symbol representing healing and medicine (with one snake; the more common twin-snake variant is called a caduceus.
I’m very excited to see what Perseverance finds on Mars, and it’s very likely that its landing date of February 18 may prove to be the first actually uncomplicated good thing to happen this year, so, hell yeah, get your arse to Mars, robot!