How one LA musician put a microphone on Mars

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Mars Perseverance rover. Photo by NASA.gov

History was made on Thursday when NASA’s Perseverance rover touched down some 300 million miles away on Mars. 

Now it begins the search for signs of life on the red planet, and soon Americans could get to hear what’s called the “seven minutes of terror.” That’s the time it takes to travel through the thin atmosphere to the martian surface. 

Despite technological advances over the past few decades, Americans haven’t been able to listen to space explorations. 

Robots have been able to replicate much of the other human sensory experience on Mars. Cameras give us sight, robotic limbs give us touch, and chemical and mineral sensors give us taste and smell. Hearing was the last of the five senses not possible in space. Until now. 

It’s all thanks to local musician and sound engineer Jason Mezilis, also known by his stage name Jason Achilles. He helped design a microphone that hopped aboard the rover. He spoke with KCRW about his creation.

KCRW: You’ve been a musician for a while. How exactly did you get this opportunity to work on this project?

Jason Mezilis: “It's an idea that I had come up with on my own about five years ago and thought I was very clever. And as it turned out, Carl Sagan and other people had been putting forward this idea of recording sound on Mars for over two decades. 

So when I found out that JPL (NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory) was going to be flying this microphone … I cold called them and asked if I could possibly be involved and sort of explained why I thought I could help. 

And I guess to my surprise and many others, they ultimately went for it. So I got to be part of the mission. And it's been incredible.”

How do you just pick up the phone and call JPL? Did you know somebody there? How did that whole process happen?

“I had a friend who worked there who sort of helped me draft different emails and letters, but I didn't have any sort of special connection with the person who ultimately responded. 

… I put about six months of work into researching technological advancements of microphones and how that might apply to the Martian atmosphere and all the problems we could possibly encounter. 

And then I guess I sort of tried to pair that with issues I'd experienced in the studio, recording bands here. And I thought that was a perspective I could maybe help bring to the science team, where you typically have a lot of engineers getting your data from sheets of paper and computers and translating that into the real world. And audio is sort of a different kind of animal. 

So that was the perspective I tried to bring to the whole mission.”

That’s certainly an achievement since NASA has tried to get a microphone on their previous missions twice. They failed both times. What makes this microphone different from one you would use in your recording studio?

“That's kind of the scary thing — is that it's not. 

So initially, I got hired to put together a design team, and we were going to do a custom build for a microphone and an enclosure that would help keep it safe. Ultimately, NASA wasn't able to fund that because this is sort of a technology demonstration. 

So it's kind of a situation where if it works great, if it doesn't, it's no big deal. 

And so a couple of months later, I was involved in a second contract where they basically said, ‘Okay, we need to pick an off-the-shelf component to help us decide[the] best guess scenario, essentially run your tests.” And then what we ultimately decided on was a microphone by a company called DPA .

It's the same kind of  microphone. There's a few very minor modifications, but essentially it's the same microphone that you would find in a studio as a measurement instrumentation, like a measurement style microphone.”

The sound files from the mic won't be released for a few days. What kind of things are you expecting to hear?

“As with any other recording, you could get a full, smooth sound capture. You could get nothing at all, or you could get things with little dropouts. We're very close to the rocket thrusters that fired following the parachute descent. And so there's a possibility those might overload the preamp. And best case scenario, even if we do capture everything, there might be some distortion when those fire up. 

But I'm really hoping we can hear things like the release of the parachute, obviously the rockets firing, maybe the chain as it lowers the rover down before the final touchdown during the sky crane maneuver.”

This mission is planned for two years, but as we've learned in the past, probes can last longer than their expected lifespan. How long will this microphone work for?

“Assuming it lasts these first five minutes, there's really no telling. the Martian thermal cycles of day and night are pretty brutal, and so that's really the biggest test...You have a very sensitive diaphragm inside your microphone.”

What do you mean by brutal? What kind of ranges and conditions are we talking about?

“The temperature swing from day to night is pretty severe. 

… Anybody who lives out in Death Valley or anything like that, you get super hot days and super cold nights. If you magnify that time, probably three or four with the amount of variability that you can get from one day to one night. … I think it's about [the] same 24-hour cycle for a day on Mars, pretty close. 

So eventually materials start to break down after that kind of abuse, especially very sensitive ones that were designed to be in a calm, warm studio environment and not in a harsh, dusty, murderous alien world. 

The great thing is if this thing works there, we’ll be able to learn a lot about designing. So my plan for the future actually is to try and work with us to design a custom microphone for Mars that will be optimized for surface conditions there, based on the information we're able to get back from this and also the other microphone on board, which is part of an instrument called SuperCam that will turn on after the landing sequence is all completed.

So hopefully we'll learn a lot about this technology and what works and what doesn't. And then we can fly one again and catch the next ride to Mars.”

Have you completely traded in your instruments for a life chasing the cosmos, or are you still making music?

“I actually have a new single coming out on February 26. Jason Achilles is where I release my music. 

And absolutely not. It's definitely moving very much hand in hand, and I refuse to give up one dream for another. So instead I'm just going to sacrifice sleep.”

Credits

Host:
Larry Perel

Producer:
Tara Atrian