Video In a remote Martian crater over 200 million miles from Earth, NASA's Curiosity rover sung "Happy Birthday" to itself using instruments in the rover's Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) chemistry laboratory.
The SAM unit uses a gas chromatograph, quadrupole mass spectrometer, and tunable laser spectrometer to analyze the soil and air of Mars, and has produced some fascinating insights into how the planet lost its breathable atmosphere billions of years ago. But these tools are useless when it comes to carrying a tune.
In order to get soil samples into SAM, the unit has a scoop that is designed to vibrate to ensure all the Martian dust and rock slides off and into the analysis chamber. The vibration also generates sound, and the team at NASA worked out the correct sequence to play the popular birthday tune.
"To commemorate SAM and Curiosity's birthday on Mars, we decided to play a little song. If there's anyone listening on Mars on this special occasion, you will hear this," said Florence Tan, SAM's electrical lead engineer.
"This is a first for NASA and for the world, and music brings people together and is fun. It's been a great year on Mars and I cannot wait to get to Mount Sharp next year."
It's a cute little trick, and one that engineers in other fields have been doing for a while. The pulsating screams of a Formula One racing car engine, for example, have been used for years to play patriotic ditties.
Curiosity might have introduced music to Mars for the first time, but it has had some role in forwarding the ambitions of
technology poseur Intel's director of creative innovation Will.i.am., when NASA allowed the rover to be used by the Black Eyed Peas front man to beam his latest ditty to and from the Red Planet in a pointless publicity stunt last August.
With its brief celebratory musical interlude now complete, Curiosity has restarted its long trek to Mount Sharp, where it hopes to take samples from rocks formed when the planet was a much more hospitable place. At around 100m a day, the rover is expected to take over a year to get there – or longer, if it finds something interesting along the way. ®