On Feb. 18, NASA’s Perseverance rover landed safely on the surface of Mars, thanks in part to a large parachute adorned with a red and white geometric pattern.
To the untrained eye, the pattern on the parachute just looked like a random jumble of shapes, but astute observers recognized that the design bore a hidden message. According to The Verge, NASA officials confirmed that the parachute contained a secret phrase that was written in computer binary.
Isn't this the most beautiful thing.— (@vanschneider) February 23, 2021
(the Perseverance Mars Rover parachute with a hidden message) pic.twitter.com/InmgsfzCXP
IGN reports that the code was broken into four layers (one for each concentric circle in the parachute’s design). Within each layer, red panels were used to represent the number one and white panels were used represent zeroes (ones and zeroes are the two symbols used in binary code). Layer by layer the individual panels were then divided into groups of 10 in order to create 10-bit binary patterns that could be translated into letters of the alphabet.
Sound confusing? Fortunately for those of us who aren’t computer binary savvy, Emily Calandrelli, an MIT-engineer turned Emmy-nominated science TV host, crafted a quick explainer video showing how codebreakers deciphered the hidden message and posted it on Twitter.
The secret message was revealed to state the Perseverance mission’s team motto “Dare Mighty Things.” According to The Guardian, the phrase is a callback to a 1899 speech from Theodore Roosevelt, in which he said:
“Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”
According to the The Verge, the mantra is also emblazoned on the walls of the team’s headquarters at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, a location which is referenced on parachute’s outermost ring. CBS News reports that the code on the rings translates from binary into the site’s GPS coordinates.
Perseverance’s chief engineer, Adam Steltzner, confirmed the secret message in a Twitter post on Feb. 22. He also shared a graphic that illustrates how the code works, displaying where each letter appears on the parachute.
It looks like the internet has cracked the code in something like 6 hours! Oh internet is there anything you can’t do? For those who just want to know: #Mars2020 #CountdownToMars pic.twitter.com/yTJCEnbuLY— Adam Steltzner (@steltzner) February 23, 2021
This is not the first time NASA has included a hidden message on one of its Mars rovers, The Verge reports. In 2012, the designers on NASA’s Curiosity rover placed tiny holes on its wheels that spelled out the letters “JPL” in Morse code (an acronym used for Jet Propulsion Laboratory). As the Curiosity rover trekked across Mars sand, the letters “JPL” were briefly stamped on the Martian ground before being blown away by the wind.