Planetary Society Offers Opportunity to Decipher Message on Mars

For Immediate Release
January 29, 2004

Mat Kaplan
Email: [email protected]
Phone: +1-626-793-5100

Puzzle-lovers around the world have the "opportunity" to decipher a message on Mars. A Planetary Society mini-DVD mounted on Opportunity, the second of NASA's twin Mars Exploration Rover spacecraft, depicts a coded message on its cover. A newly released image of that DVD assembly shows the message encircling the DVD.

The mini-DVD was produced as part of the Society's and LEGO Company's Red Rover Goes to Mars educational project on the Mars Exploration Rover mission.

NASA's rover Spirit also carried a DVD with a coded message, which many thousands of people have been working to crack. The code on the Opportunity DVD is even more accessible, so will require fewer clues for kids and the general public to decode it.

"Riddle me this: What could be more exciting than robotic spacecraft exploring an alien world?" asked Planetary Society Director of Projects, Bruce Betts "Robotic spacecraft exploring an alien world AND carrying secret messages for the public to decode! We hope that the fun aspects of the DVD will interest kids and members of the general public who may not otherwise have followed the rover missions, as well as those that would have anyway."

The LEGO Company partnered with the Planetary Society on the Red Rover Goes To Mars project to help stimulate children's interest in science and technology through NASA's Mars Exploration Rover mission.

Visitors to The Planetary Society's web site will see images of the DVDs on Opportunity and Spirit 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. Sandy now has successfully joined Biff on the surface of Mars.

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 assembly is mounted to the lander that protected Opportunity during its landing on Mars. When Opportunity rolls forward onto Mars, it will leave the DVD behind as a time capsule.

"The early days of space exploration stimulated the creativity of an entire generation, expanded our imagination, and encouraged us to push our limits, making us better and braver human beings. With this project, the LEGO Company wants to help bring part of that magic back" said Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, President and CEO of the LEGO Company. "With the success of the Spirit and Opportunity landings, the magic is back!"

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.

The entire DVD and mounting assembly weigh 69 grams and 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.

About The Planetary Society

With a global community of more than 2 million space enthusiasts, The Planetary Society is the world’s largest and most influential space advocacy organization. Founded in 1980 by Carl Sagan, Bruce Murray, and Louis Friedman and today led by CEO Bill Nye, we empower the public to take a meaningful role in advancing space exploration through advocacy, education outreach, scientific innovation, and global collaboration. Together with our members and supporters, we’re on a mission to explore worlds, find life off Earth, and protect our planet from dangerous asteroids. To learn more, visit