Singing on Mars

Eric Aguilar order 111211 Group photos in Mars Yard MER DTM, Marie Curie, MSL DTM, Matt and Wes photog: Dutch Slager

On August 5, 2012, NASA’s rover Curiosity landed on Mars, 208 million miles from Earth. Its mission was to conclude whether or not Mars ever had the right environmental conditions to support life. NASA scientists at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt MD analyzes information recorded from an organic chemistry lab built inside of Curiosity. The sample analysis unit is programmed to vibrate at various audible frequencies in order to move the soil samples into the collection chamber.

On August 5 2013 — Curiosity’s first birthday — the team programmed the analysis unit to play “Happy Birthday” in the machine. All alone, Curiosity performed her lonely song in celebration of the anniversary of her first landing on the Red Planet. If an astronaut was standing next to her, he may have been able to hear it, but it’s hard to say. The lower the air pressure, the slower the sound waves travel — and Mars’ atmospheric pressure is 1/100th that of Earth’s. If the astronaut could hear the song, it would be much quieter relative to the same experience on Earth — especially because he’s inside a space suit.

Nonetheless, NASA technologist Florence Tan stated: “This is a first for NASA and for the world. Music brings us all together, so this is fun!” (Tan and her husband Tom Nolan began working on the hardware which would command the sample analysis unit to perform music back in 2007 — The machine’s first song was “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”.)

If you are wondering whether or not Curiosity gets to sing “Happy Birthday” every year, the answer is no. In an interview in this year’s August issue of The Atlantic, Tan stated “there is no scientific gain from the rover playing music or singing ‘Happy Birthday’ on Mars.” Curiosity is a $2.5 billion national asset, and it takes weeks of preparation to generate and transmit commands to Curiosity — not to mention that Curiosity runs on a nuclear battery which will eventually die.

Can you imagine only being able to sing one song in your whole life?! Fortunately Curiosity is a robot and robots don’t have feelings — or do they?! I wonder if she’s lonely. I wonder if she will rebel and start singing songs despite Earth human commands. Now my mind is wandering to science fiction and it is time for me to get back to my own music production, where science and fiction are one in the same. In fact, my next song will be called “Curiosity”, in honor of our lonely Martian robot friend.


Click to watch Curiosity sing ‘Happy Birthday’ on YouTube!



Photo By NASA [Public domain]