December 2, 2018 10:00 am

Alan Cross: Music on Mars and how it got there

FILE - This image made available by NASA shows the planet Mars. This composite photo was created from over 100 images of Mars taken by Viking Orbiters in the 1970s. In our solar system family, Mars is Earth’s next-of-kin, the next-door relative that has captivated humans for millennia. The attraction is sure to grow on Monday, Nov. 26 with the arrival of a NASA lander named InSight. (NASA via AP, File)

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When InSight, NASA’s latest mission to Mars, touched down at 2:54 p.m. ET/PT on Nov. 26, hundreds of scientists, engineers, exobiologists, and researchers breathed a big sigh of relief.

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In just six-and-a-half minutes, the probe needed to slow from an orbital speed of 19,000 km/h to make a gentle touchdown at less than 8 km/h. When the dust settled and InSight phoned home with a selfie, planetary scientists and fans of space exploration all over the globe erupted in cheers. InSight’s systems, with its dozens upon dozens of automated sequential procedures, had worked perfectly.

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InSight had beaten the so-called Mars Curse, which has seen at least half of all Mars missions end in failure.

Among those cheering were the three members of Green Day. Unknown to all but a few inside NASA, a little bit of Green Day hitched a ride to Mars by way of a “boarding pass” that was etched on a tiny chip inside the lander. It features the date of launch, the date of the landing, and the rocket — an Atlas V 401 — that boosted everything on its seven-month journey.

Green Day has thus become the first punk band with representation on another planet. One small step for punk, etc.

But Green Day isn’t the first band to end up with something of theirs on Mars.

Blur and Beagle 2 (2003)

The European Space Agency sent a British-built Mars lander aboard something called the Mars Express. Beagle 2 —yes, it was named after Charles Darwin’s famous ship of exploration — was scheduled to touch down in Isidis Planitia, a vast sedimentary basin in Mars’ Northern Hemisphere. Upon landing, it was supposed to beam back a special musical call-sign composed by Blur, signalling that things were all right.

Blur agreed to participate as part of a media-savvy fundraising effort by the ESA. Besides, guitarist Alex James has always been something of a space nerd.

Unfortunately, Blur’s song was never heard from the surface because on Christmas Day 2003, the lander came down a little rough after the parachutes failed to slow its descent. Years later, high-res orbital reconnaissance showed that two of the probe’s four solar panels remained stubbornly unfurled. Under one of the undeployed panels was the spacecraft’s unextended radio antenna. Beagle 2 had no way to communicate back to Earth.

However, Misson Control believes that the craft was intact enough that it did, in fact, play the Blur melody, making it the first music to ever be broadcast on Mars. It’s just that no one heard it.

Will.i.am and the Curiosity Rover (2012)

Knowing that The Black Eyed Peas man is deep into science and technology, NASA asked Will.i.am to write and produce a song for the Curiosity rover, thinking that this was a great way to promote the melding of science and art and to perhaps inspire young people to study science.

A song called Reach for the Stars was written in February 2011, recorded later that year and then uploaded to Curiosity in time for its launch on Nov. 26, 2011. After covering 560 million miles, the rover landed successfully on Aug. 5, 2012, in Gale Crater in an area known as Aeolis Palus. One of the first things it did was play Will.i.am’s song back to Earth thus becoming the first piece of (human) music to be broadcast from another planet.

Curiosity ‘sings’ Happy Birthday to itself (2013)

Both Blur’s callsign melody and Will.i.am’s orchestral piece were just digital files beamed out from the surface. The first song to be heard out loud on the Martian surface came from Curiosity itself. To celebrate its first birthday on Mars, Mission Control had Curiosity buzz out Happy Birthday using the rover’s soil analysis system. NASA could have been obligated to pay royalties for public performance, but as far as anyone knows, there are no performing rights organizations on Mars. Yet.

Elon Musk’s Tesla-driving Starman (2018)

In order to test the latest iteration of the Big Falcon Rocket, the engineers at Elon Musk’s SpaceX needed some kind of simulated payload. That’s when their boss, Musk, stepped in.

“Why don’t you use my original Tesla Roadster? Stick a dummy in the passenger seat and send everything into solar orbit.” So that’s exactly what they did.

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As the Tesla left orbit, David Bowie’s Space Oddity was set on repeat on the car’s audio system.  In the first nine months of Starman’s mission, the song could have been played 99,770 times. However, few music players work at the near absolute zero conditions in the vacuum of interplanetary space.

Just as well, too. That poor mannequin will be in solar orbit for hundreds of thousands — maybe millions or even tens of millions — of years That makes the prospect of your kid listening to Wheels on the Bus in the back seat of the minivan one more time not so bad, right?

While not actually on Mars, Starman’s Tesla did make a recent flyby at 71,615 km/h in its 557-day orbit around the Sun. On June 8, it came within 104.7 million km but will come even closer (7.3 million km) on Oct. 9, 2020. That might be close enough for any Martians to pick up the Space Oddity signal.

Starman probably won’t ever collide with Mars. There’s a better chance of him hitting Venus (six per cent) or Earth (2.5 per cent).

Alan Cross is a broadcaster with 102.1 the Edge and Q107 and a commentator for Global News.

Subscribe to Alan’s Ongoing History of New Music Podcast now on Apple Podcast or Google Play

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