Saturday, December 3, 2022

The LA musician who designed a microphone for Mars

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It’s called the “seven minutes of terror.” As the 2300-pound six-wheeled nuclear-powered Perseverance rover nears Mars Thursday, a supersonic parachute will slow the descent vehicle to 200 mph. About 70 feet above the landing site, retrorocks will hover it, and then a “sky crane” will lower NASA’s newest rock-crawler to the rusty-colored dirt below. As Perseverance hits the ground, the Descent Ship will strengthen and crash nearby.

Don’t worry, you’ll be fine: Perseverance, which will explore Martian geology and search for evidence of ancient microbial life, uses known landing strategies, including many from the 2012 Curiosity mission. What is new, however, is is that the earthlings will be able listen much of the seven-minute drama. On board the rover is a small microphone which, if all goes well, will record the sounds of the descent and, later, the Martian environment itself, something no Mars probe has yet realized.

Considering the sheer scale of hypersensitive material that humans have been shooting at planets for about 60 years, it’s surprising that we’ve never been able to listen. Of course, there were attempts: in the early 1980s, two Soviet Venera Venus probes carried microphones to estimate wind speed. But the records were static and inconsistent. NASA’s Mars Polar Lander mission in 1999 included a microphone, but the probe shattered to pieces on arrival. NASA tried again in 2008 with the Phoenix Mars mission, but the mic was nixed before take off. Space agencies have several thousand images of planetary exploration but very few extraterrestrial soundtracks.

So if modern equipment could finally capture the rush of the wind and the staccato blasting of dust that will accompany the video of the descent and landing and, yes, the clicks and whirrs of a robotic probe as ‘she crawls across the sandy surface of Jezero crater day and day after day (OK, sol in and sol out) – wouldn’t you like to hear that?

Jason Mezilis, a longtime Los Angeles-based rock musician, songwriter and enthusiast, certainly did. In 2016, he was having a drink on a patio with his friend Joseph Carsten, who worked in robotics at the nearby NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. They were talking about the Curiosity rover’s spectacular landing strategy, and Mezilis was curious what it would look like. Would it be possible to mount a microphone on the upcoming Perseverance lander to capture the aural drama that will accompany the NASA video stream? “How cool would that be?” he thought.

Mezilis’ relentless pursuit of this issue catapulted him to a date with NASA. It’s a story that reminds us that innovation can come from surprising places.

Mezilis, a young The 46-year-old with an unruly broom was a late musician. He only picked up the guitar right before his final year of high school, which caused his grades and concentration to drop. As a result, he missed a piano audition – he was unprepared and nervous – for UCLA School of Music, and UC San Diego canceled his acceptance of his program. He went to De Anza College in Cupertino, his hometown, where a professor taught him theory – performance, harmonic structure, musical analysis. It turned out to be the frame he needed. The instructor helped Mezilis prepare for the music school placement tests, so when he applied to UC Berkeley’s music department, he got in easily. By the time he graduated he was adept at guitar, bass, and piano, as well as other keyboard instruments.

A few years after college, Mezilis, who uses the stage name Jason Achilles, traveled to Los Angeles, and in the following years performed in rock groups – Black Belt Karate, Your Horrible Smile, Owl – and has made recordings and productions. He has his own studio in the sprawling Downtown Rehearsal warehouse, where he recorded his first solo album, Calm down. Since then he has collaborated with Hungarian and Czechoslovak symphony orchestras to record his compositions, and he is now helping Guns N ‘Roses keyboardist Dizzy Reed produce his next album. In other words, he’s had a brilliant and diverse career, but it’s not rocket science, at least not the kind JPL is looking for.


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