The LA Musician Who Designed a Microphone for Mars

It’s called the “seven minutes of terror.” As the 2,300-pound, six-wheeled, nuclear-powered Perseverance rover approaches Mars on Thursday, a supersonic parachute will slow the descent vehicle to 200 mph. About 70 feet above the landing site, retrorockets will settle it into a hover, then a “sky crane” will lower NASA’s newest rock-crawler to the rust-colored dirt below. As Perseverance touches down, the descent ship will boost itself clear and crash-land nearby.

Don’t worry, it’s going to be fine: Perseverance, which will explore martian geology and search for evidence of ancient microbial life there, is using known landing strategies, many from the 2012 Curiosity mission. What is new, though, is that earthlings will be able to hear much of the seven-minute drama. Embedded on the rover is a small microphone that, if all goes well, will record the sounds of the descent and, later, the martian environment itself, something no Mars probe has yet achieved.

Given the breadth of hypersensitive hardware humans have been shooting at planets for the past 60-odd years, it’s startling that we’ve never been able to listen in. Sure, there have been attempts: In the early 1980s, two Soviet Venera probes to Venus carried microphones for estimating wind speed. But the recordings were staticky and incoherent. NASA’s Mars Polar Lander mission in 1999 included a mic, but the probe crashed into pieces on arrival. NASA tried again in 2008 with the Phoenix Mars mission, but the mic was nixed before takeoff. Space agencies have many thousands of images of planetary exploration but precious little in the way of alien soundtracks.

So if modern equipment could finally capture the rush of wind and the staccato sandblasting of dust that will accompany video of the descent and landing and, yes, the clicks and whirrs of a robotic probe as it crawls over the sandy surface of Jezero Crater day in and day out (OK, sol in and sol out)—wouldn’t you want to hear that?

Jason Mezilis, a Los Angeles–based rock musician, composer, and lifelong space enthusiast, certainly did. In 2016, he was having drinks on a diner patio with his friend Joseph Carsten, who worked in robotics at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory nearby in Pasadena. They were talking about the Curiosity rover’s dramatic landing strategy, and Mezilis was curious what it would sound like. Would it be possible to mount a microphone on the upcoming Perseverance lander to capture the aural drama to accompany NASA’s video feed? “How cool would that be?” he mused.

Mezilis’ dogged pursuit of this query catapulted him toward a rendezvous with NASA. It’s a story that reminds us that innovation can come from surprising places.

Mezilis, a youthful 46-year-old with an unruly mop-top, was something of a late bloomer as a musician. He didn’t take up guitar until just before his senior year of high school, which caused his grades to plummet and his focus to drift. As a result, he flubbed a piano audition—he was unprepared and nervous—for the music school at UCLA, and UC San Diego rescinded his acceptance to its program. He made his way to De Anza College in Cupertino, his hometown, where a teacher taught him theory—performance, harmonic structure, musical analysis. This, it turned out, was the framework he needed. The instructor helped Mezilis prepare for music school placement tests, so when he applied to UC Berkeley’s music department, he got in handily. By the time he graduated, he was adept at guitar, bass, and piano, along with other keyboard instruments.

A few years after college, Mezilis, who uses the stage name Jason Achilles, headed to Los Angeles, and over the next years played in rock bands—Black Belt Karate, Your Horrible Smile, Owl—and did recording and production work. He has his own studio in the sprawling warehouse Downtown Rehearsal, where he recorded his first solo album, Comedown. He has since collaborated with Hungarian and Czechoslovakian symphony orchestras to record his compositions, and he’s now helping Guns N’ Roses keyboardist Dizzy Reed produce his next album. In other words, he’s had a bright and diverse career, but it ain’t rocket science, at least not the kind JPL looks for.

www.wired.com

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