Morse Code on Mars

-August 10, 2012

Since everybody else is writing about the Curiosity Rover, I guess I need to write something about Mars—like the fact that there’s Morse code up there.

I’m not sure whether this got covered anywhere in the popular media, but the ARRL reported it a while ago. 

If you look carefully at the treads on the wheels of the rover vehicle, you’ll notice the predominant, zigzag pattern, but you’ll also see a section of tread on each wheel that’s patterned with dots and dashes. The official word is that they serve as “visual odometry markers” that tell the mission controllers how far Curiosity has roved and let them verify that the rover’s wheels are indeed turning when the rover’s telemetry says it is moving. But I think they’re just a really, really cool hack that some ham on the development team at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena couldn’t resist. The dots and dashes spell out “JPL” in the surface dust on the Red Planet.

etail of Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity Rover with tread pattern that will leave an impression on the Martian surface spelling "JPL" in Morse Code (·--- ·--· ·-··). Photo courtesy of NASA/JPL.

Yes, Morse code is alive and well. A while back, I had lunch with a professor and some of his grad students. The prof knew I was a ham and told his students that I could actually decode Morse code signals in my head. They were astonished, partly because they didn’t know Morse was still being used anywhere, and partly because a human could copy it without a computer.

Turns out there are a few other examples of Morse code that turn up in unlikely places. The next time you watch a baseball game being played at Fenway Park in Boston, look carefully at the white lines in the scoreboard on the left-field wall. You’ll spot some dots and dashes hiding in plain sight in two of the vertical stripes. They spell out “TAY” and “JRY,” for Thomas A Yawkey and his wife, Jean R Yawkey; the Yawkeys were co-owners of the Red Sox for many years.

There is also a “Morse Code” wine in the shops; the specific varietal is spelled out in dots and dashes on the label. The next time you’re shopping for wine, bring along a ham to tell you what it is.

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