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Perseverance is cool enough on its own, since it will be scouring the frozen wastes of Mars looking to unearth any evidence of life (whether it’s extinct or still lurking somewhere), but five gizmos that NASA tricked it out with make it even more awesome.
Astrobiology is the star focus of the Perseverance mission, but not the only one. When the rover touches down, it will not only search for anything that is or was alive, but also figure out more about Martian geology, have bragging rights as the first mission to grab samples of Martian regolith, look into what its climate was like in the past, which may or may not have made it more habitable. NASA’s past Mars rovers all carried hidden treasures to the Red Planet — which the space agency calls “festooning”. Perseverance might have some of the raddest accessories yet.
Greetings from Earthlings on Mastcam-Z…
Mastcam-Z is exactly what it sounds like — a camera mounted on a mast that will be able to zoom in and focus on objects that are near or far, image things in 3D, and record video footage so it can explore its surroundings in as much detail as possible. Its main calibration target doubles as a sundial and a memento from the home planet.
"There was a group of us on the team who wanted to add some fun artistic and educational elements to what is otherwise a rather staid and esoteric device designed to help us get the colors right in our calibrated images," Jim Bell, Principal Investigator for Perseverence Mastcam-Z investigation, told SYFY WIRE.
The color and grayscale swatches make sure the camera is on point with its color settings. Inscribed with the words Two Worlds, One Beginning, a reference to the primordial space dust both Earth and Mars emerged from, it also displays symbols of life on Earth, from early cyanobacteria to dinosaurs to humans.
…and a message for human or alien astronauts
There another inscription on Mastcam-Z that might bring all the feels. It reads: Are we alone? We came here to look for signs of life, and to collect samples of Mars for study on Earth. To those who follow, we wish a safe journey and the joy of discovery. “Joy of Discovery” is translated into several languages. You know how those gold Voyager records were designed to tell some distant civilization, if it existed, about humanity? Future Mars-tronauts (human or otherwise) might need a moment when they see this.
"I believe it's important that we project other aspects of our species, and our civilization, out into space besides just amazing science and engineering and technology," Bell said. "The festooning we did for Perseverence was similar to other rovers. The latest embellishments and festooning being sent to Mars on the Perseverance rover follow in the spirit and tradition of festooning sent on missions like Pioneer, Voyager, and the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. It was partly some artistic embellishments, partly some thoughtful tributes to people who have either come before or who are making space exploration possible in these challenging times."
SHERLOC’s investigative gadget
Do you geocache? Are you always on your smartphone playing a real-life version of Pokémon Go by using your GPS to seek out things other people hid for someone to find? Then you’re going to geek out at what is riding along on Perseverance’s SHERLOC (Scanning Habitable Environment with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals) camera. The cam, which is attached to the end of the rover’s 7-foot robotic arm, is hiding a coin made from material recycled from the visor of a spacesuit helmet. When SHERLOC’s aptly named sidekick WATSON (Wide Angle Topographic Sensor for Operations and eNgineering) images something, it will be uploaded to the Perseverance image gallery on mars.nasa.gov. Hardcore geocachers will then be able to search for it.
Unexpected test subjects
Because NASA plans send humans to Mars at some point, and Elon Musk can’t wait to colonize the place, we need to find out what it takes for a space suit to keep from falling apart in what is essentially an icy desert with no atmosphere and killer radiation. This is why there are some inanimate test subjects hiding out on SHERLOC. Perseverance couldn’t take off without a handful of spacesuit material samples that will help NASA decide what will hold up best in the planet’s brutal conditions.
Pieces of space rock...
Supercam, which is equipped with a laser to go pew pew pew at regolith so it produces vapor that will let it see what they are made of. There will be another piece of Martian meteorite on this instrument. What makes Supercam’s piece of rock symbolic of space travel is its backstory, since it hung out on the ISS for a while (above) before landing on its final destination. SHERLOC also has a Martian meteorite fragment to make its settings as precise as possible, but the meteorite on Supercam has really been around.
...and a piece of 2020
This year will forever go down in history (and infamy) as the year of COVID-19, the pandemic no one saw coming and every human being on Earth was affected by in some way or another. This is why an aluminum plate on Perseverance’s left side memorializes those who lost their lives, the front line heroes who risked everything to fight the spread of the virus, and the survivors who kept carrying on. The symbol on the plate is the ancient Greek symbol known as the Rod of Asclepius. If you’ve ever seen a snake entwined with a pole in a pharmacy, doctor's office or hospital, you were looking at it.
An addition to the symbol is our planet at the top of the rod — a testament to the resilience of people on Earth. This is exactly the type of message Bell hopes we send out there.
"Adding some simple embellishments and festooning to deep space missions like this doesn't detract from the science or engineering or technology," he said. "Rather, they add soul and spirit and emotion and help to reinforce the reality that it's not robots that are out there exploring the solar system for us, but that it's people doing the exploring, using robotics as our tools and avatars."
Your name here… and out there
Remember when NASA had submissions open for anyone to send their name to Mars? Those names are now on a microchip that is headed there with Perseverance, just like the millions of names that flew over with its predecessors Spirit and Opportunity. 10.9 million names, along with 155 essays submitted by finalists in the contest that ultimately named Perseverance, will now be forever immortalized on an alien planet.