The deadline looms to solve a Martian mystery! Puzzle-lovers around the world have only one more week -- until Friday, March 12 -- to crack the code on the Planetary Society and LEGO Company mini-DVDs mounted on the landers for the twin Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. Images of the DVDs and coded messages can be found on The Planetary Society website.
The mini-DVDs were produced as part of the Society's and LEGO Company's Red Rover Goes to Mars educational project on the Mars Exploration Rover mission.
Visitors to The Planetary Society's web site will see images taken by Opportunity and Spirit of the DVDs and will be encouraged to decode the messages. Every two days, new clues are released to help people crack the codes. Once someone has decoded a message, that person will be able to input it at the Society's web site and print a certificate acknowledging the accomplishment. All who successfully enter a decoded message before the correct answer is released will be entered in a random drawing that will award LEGO and Planetary Society prizes to a subset of these cryptographers.
In addition to the four million names carried on each DVD, the DVD mounting structure includes magnets to collect dust, colors to study color appearance under a Martian sky, and representations of robotic LEGO minifigures that have been personified as Sandy Moondust on Opportunity and Biff Starling on Spirit. Biff and Sandy's entertaining mission reports are called the Astrobot Diaries and appear on The Planetary Society's website.
The Planetary Society's web site also offers a wealth of information about Mars, the Mars Exploration Rovers, decoding, and planetary data encoding. The activity is fun for hobbyist code-breakers as well as the general public, especially kids.
The Planetary Society, in cooperation with the LEGO Company, provided the DVDs to carry to the surface of Mars the names of four million people collected by NASA. The DVD assemblies are mounted to the landers that protected Opportunity and Spirit during their landings on Mars.
The DVDs are constructed from silica glass to withstand the high temperatures required to sterilize them of Earth microbes prior to their launch for Mars. Silica glass also enjoys a far greater lifetime than the plastic from which regular DVDs are made, perhaps lasting as long as 500 years - a time capsule on the Martian surface.
Each DVD and mounting assembly weighs 69 grams. They were subjected to a battery of tests designed to simulate the extreme environmental conditions of their journey to and arrival on Mars: temperatures cycling from -125 to 60 degrees Celsius, exposure to vacuum, high-speed random vibration, and shocks of 4,000 times the acceleration of Earth's gravity.
Visionary Products, Inc. implemented the DVD mounting assembly, Plasmon OMS donated the silica glass DVDs and data etching, and the magnets were donated by Jens Martin Knudsen and Morten Bo Madsen, heads of the Danish team who also built the magnets mounted to the Mars Exploration Rovers.