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NASA’s Perseverance is the hero we need

Perseverance is a great name for a Mars rover. For one thing, it fits neatly into NASA’s recent run of christening its robots after human qualities. For another, it’s a word that evokes the difficulty and ambition of the rover’s mission, when more than half of the spacecraft sent to the Red Planet before it have either blown up or crashed. It’s also not “Rover McRoverface,” which is always a possibility, when you crowdsource a name.

But perhaps most importantly, you can shorten “Perseverance” to the cute and human-sounding “Percy.”

The name of the rover, though, is admittedly about the last thing anyone at NASA is thinking about right now, after its nail-biting landing on Mars on Thursday afternoon. But at last, after seven months and 300 million miles, Perseverance successfully touched down on the planet’s dusty surface, to the cheers and nervous laughter of Mission Control.

From where it’s landed, the rover will travel to the 28-mile-wide Jezero Crater, an ancient Martian delta that was covered with water more than 3.5 billions years ago — roughly the same time that life was likely beginning on neighboring Earth. Perseverance’s primary job on the planet is to confirm if Mars supported life billions of years ago, too: the rover carries seven instruments to help it study its environment and, in particular, to analyze rocks for the chemical giveaways of bygone, microscopic organisms.

Despite Percy being an insentient hunk of astronomically expensive aluminum with the primary purpose of looking verrrrry closely at rocks for two whole years, the rover already has quite the personality. NASA writes Percy’s Twitter in the first-person, including the documentation of her own landing (when speaking about Perseverance, NASA scientists frequently fall back on using female pronouns). “Once I get this part behind me, I’ll finally be able to get to work,” Percy chirped a few hours before her attempt, adding the technically impossible claim that she “can’t wait.” She later followed up with the reassurance that “I’m safe on Mars. Perseverance will get you anywhere.”

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It’s a good PR move: people love cute robots like WALL-E and BB-8. Plus, it’s fun to pretend that Mars rovers can have “hobbies,” as Percy’s Twitter bio claims (she enjoys “photography,” “collecting rocks,” and “off-roading” — and bachelor droids, she’s single!). But even NASA frequently falls into humanizing Percy in its language; the rover sent “heartbeat tones” to scientists during its landing to keep Mission Control updated on its function, and a page on their website describing the body of the rover parenthetically notes that the vehicle’s computer and electronics are “basically the equivalent of the rover’s brains and heart,” while its metal body “keeps the rover’s vital organs protected.”

This is far from the first time scientists have anthropomorphized a rover to such a degree. Curiosity, which launched in 2011, is still on Mars, and spent Thursday tweeting about its shared anticipation of Perseverance’s landing. Meanwhile Opportunity, which landed on Mars in 2004, stopped responding to NASA after a dust storm in 2018; its “death” prompted actual eulogies, with people reacting the same way to the news of its demise as they might have to a human celebrity’s. Researchers found that tweets about Opportunity “were mistaken for being about a human 63 percent of the time,” Futurity reports, while “the pronoun ‘you’ showed up in more than half of the sampled tweets about Opportunity. Among those, 72 percent spoke to the rover, with others directed at NASA and its scientists.” Perhaps part of that was because people had taken to familiarly calling Opportunity “Oppy,” connecting with it not just as an expensive, distant project — but almost like a friend.

Giving human characteristics to the rovers, though, also raises the stakes for those of us watching from afar. The shift from Perseverance to Percy invests us in a wellbeing that we know, logically, is all projection. Still, before landing, the rover had tweeted about how “the most dangerous part” of her journey “comes last: the final seven minutes.” And could that have been … an implied edge of anxiety in her electronic voice? But if Perseverance can “feel” fear, what about loneliness? Or existential dread? Take, for example, the case of MESSENGER, the Mercury probe that live-tweeted its own crash in 2015: “Well I guess it is time to say goodbye to all my friends, family, support team,” MESSENGER’s Twitter account wrote as it was going down. “I will be making my final impact very soon.” Hey, wait a minute, spacecraft have families?

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But really, why wouldn’t we have emotional stakes in Percy’s journey? The name is only the smallest part of the equation. Exploring space is one of the most fundamentally human things we can do, to find our limits and, through teamwork, press past them into the unknown. Percy might not look like us, but she is a human creation, constructed in biological terms and imbued with an invented persona so we can feel closer to its otherwise cold, unfeeling, moving parts. It is this extension of ourselves that is burdened with searching for that all-important sign that we might not be alone in the universe. Then, to give a name to that rover, to imagine hearing its voice — it’s like sending a little bit of our humanity to another world.

“We are a species of explorers, and we will meet many setbacks on the way to Mars,” explained the seventh-grader who, out of 27,000 submissions, came up with the winning name for Perseverance. “However, we can persevere. We — not as a nation but as humans — will not give up.”

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Good luck out there, Percy. We’re rooting for you.