There was a Secret Code in the Perseverance Parachute

A secret coded message was hidden on the gigantic parachute used to land the Perseverance rover safely on the surface on Mars. And no, it wasn’t a clandestine message to the Martians. It was a message of inspiration for us humans.

But it also came as a challenge.

During a news briefing on February 22, Allen Chen, the entry, descent and landing lead for the mission revealed there was a secret message in the parachute.

“In addition to enabling incredible science, we hope our efforts in our engineering can inspire others,” he said. “Sometimes we leave messages in our work for others to find for that purpose, so we invite you all to give it a shot and show your work.”

Puzzle lovers around the world quickly went to work, and it didn’t take long.

Adam Steltzner, Perseverance’s chief engineer, confirmed “the internet” had cracked the code late Monday night on Twitter.

Hidden in the 70-foot (21-meter) parachute’s red and white pattern was a binary code with the phrase “Dare mighty things”  — a famous expression from President Theodore Roosevelt, espoused by those who work at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The outer rings of the pattern also feature GPS coordinates for JPL’s offices in Pasadena, California: 34°11’58” N 118°10’31” W. 

Chen later confirmed on Twitter that the code was the brain child of systems engineer Ian Clark, who helped conduct tests of the supersonic parachute, as well as performing several other tasks for the Perseverance rover team.

Clark is a crossword hobbyist, and said only about six people knew about the coded message before this week.

Chen expressed how grateful he is for the ability to work with such creative people at JPL. “It’s a feeling of being very fortunate at the end… that I get to work at a place with people who are both great engineers and great people, and we still get to dare mighty things together,” he said at Monday’s briefing.

The “Dare Mighty Things” sign at JPL. Image by Nancy Atkinson.

Secret messages on the rovers are not new. The Curiosity rover has holes in its wheels that creates marks in the Mars regolith that spells out “JPL” in Morse Code.

This image shows a close-up of track marks left by the Curiosity rover. Holes in the rover’s wheels, seen here in this view, leave imprints in the tracks that can be used to help the rover drive more accurately. The imprint is Morse code for ‘JPL,’ and aids in tracking how far the rover has traveled. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

It was also revealed that Perseverance bears a plaque depicting all five of NASA’s Mars rovers in increasing size over the years — reminiscent of the decals on cars that portray the family riding inside.

Deputy project manager Matt Wallace said more hidden “Easter eggs” should start showing up on Perseverance when more images of the rover itself are taken and beamed back to Earth.

“Definitely, definitely should keep a good lookout,” he said.