Step number 337 in assembling Lego's new NASA Mars Rover Perseverance Technic model is to you install your name on the miniature robotic explorer — assuming, of course, you were one of the nearly 11 million people who signed up to fly on the real Perseverance now on the Red Planet.
The detail, which is represented as a decal, is just one of the ways that Lego designers accurately reproduced Perseverance down to even its finer points. The 1,132-piece building set, which went on sale for $99.99 at U.S. Lego Stores and on Lego.com on Tuesday (Aug. 1), is the product of a collaboration between the Denmark-based toy company and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, where the real six-wheeled vehicle was designed, built and, for the past 894 days since touching down in Jezero Crater, controlled from Earth.
"[That is] one of the details that's particularly meaningful to me," said Scott Hulme, a Mars public engagement specialist at JPL who helped the Lego team refine the Perseverance set, in an interview with collectSPACE.com. "We invited people to send their names to Mars and we inscribed them on a series of small chips — and 10.9 million people did that."
"These chips that exist now on Mars are just on a bridge piece over the back of the rover. The Lego rover reproduces the same installation." said Hulme. "You can even see the number of people who wrote in their names — explorers who decided they wanted to send their names to Mars."
Real and augmented reality action
Hulme purchased one of the NASA Mars Rover Perseverance Lego Technic sets and built it with his children in a few hours spread over several sessions.
"It was a thrill as I was going through the set. My kids heard me just sort of 'wowing,' you know, thinking 'wow' every few pages [of the instruction booklet] that this piece or that piece was managed to be included or incorporated from the vehicle," said Hulme.
It was not just small details like the name chips, either. After having a chance to speak with the engineers who worked on the real Perseverance during a visit to JPL, Lego's designers were able to make their brick-built rover move just like the real one.
"One of Perseverance's trademark features is its mobility system, which it inherited from the Curiosity rover," Hulme said. "It's this system that allows all six wheels to stay on the ground and to move independently of one another. It's got what we call a 'rocker-bogie' suspension differential that goes across the top and that keeps all of those wheels stable as they can be."
"There's no tow truck within hundreds of millions of miles of Perseverance, so it has to move carefully, has to be stable and steady," he said. "What they did on the Lego rover was, within the confines of the Technic system, built a version of that that basically functions just like the real mobility system."
Lego was also able to represent many of the science instruments on the rover, which are being used to collect rock and soil samples that may contain the signs of, or characteristics capable of supporting, ancient microbial life, as well as well as test out new technologies for future missions, such as producing oxygen from Mars' carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere.
Sometimes, though, the size of the equipment or where it is located, precluded it being built using Lego bricks.
"We have all of the science instruments depicted in this model, but one of them is internal to the rover itself. The MOXIE instrument, which generates oxygen on the surface of Mars, is actually inside the model, just as it is inside the rover itself," Hulme said. "But it is represented, not in the physical form, but you can actually learn a lot more about it and how it works within the AR [augmented reality] app that comes with the kit."
The app is activated by pointing your smart phone's camera at the completed rover model.
"You can also get the latest weather reports that Perseverance is sending back to Earth," said Hulme. "There are a lot of cool details like that, which we're happy to see incorporated."
Up, up and under
In addition to roving the Red Planet with the Perseverance rover, NASA's Mars 2020 mission also included the first demonstration of powered flight on a planet other than Earth. Since April 19, 2021, the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter has made 52 flights, scouting the terrain for its six-wheeled traveling companion.
The LEGO Technic NASA Mars Rover Perseverance set also includes Ingenuity, though if it can fly is still in question.
"I haven't flicked the rotors hard enough to induce flight," Hulme said with a laugh.
That does not mean the same attention to detail was not paid to the helicopter as was to the rover.
"One thing I like about it is they were able to form it at just the right height where it can sit underneath Perseverance, just like it was really dropped on Mars," Hulme told collectSPACE. "The real rover dropped off Ingenuity underneath it and drove away after it was sitting on the surface, so you can even reenact that with this set as well."
'Spark of inspiration'
Just as LEGO's other space exploration-themed sets have connected the public with the past, present and future of NASA's activities in space, Hulme sees the Technic Mars Rover Perseverance achieving the same.
"Perseverance and Ingenuity, they are out there on Mars every day. They're exploring. They're making new discoveries. A toy like this can help connect kids to that adventure in a different way," he said.
"We're so excited to just see something that NASA has built now in stores around the world," said Hulme. "We get to take this this amazing robot that the engineers here built and put a version of it into kids' hands so they get a sense of what that it's like putting something this together and imagine what's possible."
"I hope it lights a spark of of inspiration in some kid somewhere. We will need that next generation of engineers and scientists and dreamers who will help us carry the torch forward," said Hulme.
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Robert Pearlman is a space historian, journalist and the founder and editor of collectSPACE.com, an online publication and community devoted to space history with a particular focus on how and where space exploration intersects with pop culture. Pearlman is also a contributing writer for Space.com and co-author of "Space Stations: The Art, Science, and Reality of Working in Space” published by Smithsonian Books in 2018. He previously developed online content for the National Space Society and Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, helped establish the space tourism company Space Adventures and currently serves on the History Committee of the American Astronautical Society, the advisory committee for The Mars Generation and leadership board of For All Moonkind. In 2009, he was inducted into the U.S. Space Camp Hall of Fame in Huntsville, Alabama. In 2021, he was honored by the American Astronautical Society with the Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History.