Tens of millions of people watched the extraordinary landing of the Perseverance rover on Mars, but few with as much interest as Maxence Abela, a 23-year-old computer and IT student at Epitech, a graduate school for information and new technologies in Paris.
He describes himself as a big fan of space exploration, so he listened in when NASA officials produced new pictures and described the mission in detail afterwards. As talk turned to the parachute that slowed the descent of the Rover, NASA engineer Allen Chen said he hoped the mission would inspire others. Chen then added, “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.”
That was all the inspiration that Maxence needed to hear. It was clear to him that Chen was talking about the parachute, which, as it turns out, had an unusual pattern in the canopy. No one may have noticed it in the commotion of the final minutes of descent. But upon closer inspection, the parachute design was not symmetrical. Yet neither was the pattern random.
Maxence was confident the message that Chen spoke of was embedded in that parachute. He called up his dad, Jerome, a software engineer and together they set about trying to crack the message.
The first thing they noticed were the two colours and four concentric circles. “Being a programmer myself and my father, too, we immediately thought of binary,” Maxence explained in an interview with Global News.
Father and son translated the reddish-orange patches and the white patches to a series of ones and zeros, basic computer language. “When we saw those ones and zeros in the parachute we decided to take every square of the parachute and put them into a file.”
They toiled away on different formulas for a couple of hours and finally landed on a counting scheme, clockwise in groups of 10 from the inner to outer rings of the parachute. It produced corresponding letters in the alphabet: one for A, two for B, three for C, etc. What later came out was the words “dare mighty things.”
Maxence and Jerome found the word “things” first.
“When we found ‘things,’ we knew that was it.”
Maxence said he didn’t think they would crack the message, and when they did he figured they could just look up the answer. Indeed, when he Googled, ”dare mighty things” he found that it was the motto of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. So the connection to Perseverance was obvious. But what he couldn’t find anywhere else was the solution to the parachute code, because it turned out he and his dad were the first.
“When we discovered that no one else had posted the solution, we decided to post it on Twitter and see how people might react if we were the first one to find it.” NASA noticed. The chief engineer for Perseverance, Adam Steltzner, posted a diagram with the solution, clearly impressed with the quick turnaround in just a few hours. Steltzner tweeted, “Oh internet is there anything you can’t do?”
Maxence was thrilled. “It was very nice to see all those cool space people talking about me … it’s awesome.”
Having fun with a hidden message is not out of keeping with the jet propulsion team’s habits. In addition to Including a symbol honouring health-care workers, NASA also pasted a little family portrait of previous Martian rovers onto Perseverance, like something you would find on the back window of a suburban family minivan.
But the message “dare mighty things” is something the JPL team clearly believes in. It can be found in many places at NASA. And while teasing about the message, NASA’s Allen Chen later in the news conference actually gave away the answer, describing the work they do at NASA and stating, “And we still get to dare mighty things together.”
The phrase was taken from words spoken by former U.S. president Teddy Roosevelt. More than once Roosevelt praised those who entered the arena and took chances on success while risking and accepting failure. Roosevelt said, “Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in the grey twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”
That is the essence of space exploration. Failures are inevitable. But the successes are nothing less than historic breakthroughs for science and our understanding of life and the cosmos.
For Maxence Abela, the code in the parachute was like a game, a brainteaser. But with his interest in space, his knack for thinking through problems, and the notice he received from NASA, it’s hard not to consider the possibilities that might open up.
“Now I feel like I’m part of the space team,” Abela said. He wants to work in the field of rockets and satellites, so what was a little diversion could turn into something much bigger. “It’s a great step for me because it’s bringing me closer to what I want to do in life.”
At 23 and still in school, Maxence is daring to think mighty things.