Last summer, as July bled into August, an explorer set out on the most solitary kind of mission — a one-way journey with a gaggle of instruments and a few small reminders of home in tow.
Cameras? Check. Spectrometers? Check. Tiny chips carrying the names of 10.9 million devoted fans? Check.
NASA’s newest rover, Perseverance, blasted out of Florida atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket in the early hours of July 30, 2020, making a quick pitstop in Earth orbit before setting a course for Mars, our pale blue dot in the rearview. When it arrived nearly seven months later, on February 18, 2021, the joy was overwhelming. Its first transmissions from the surface of Mars, only moments after landing, were received by a room of elated ground controllers, their real-time reactions livestreamed around the world.
Then the rover spoke: “HOLY SHIT I’M ON MARS.”
More accurately, the rover tweeted. And not the actual rover, but @PercyRover, an account that popped up in July 2020 and has been slinging science-y quips ever since. PercyRover (they/them) is a Mars explorer who enjoys dunking on Venus (and occasionally Elon Musk). They’re a self-described “proud immigrant” with nearly 63,000 Twitter followers and “piping hot cafecito” to spill about their new home and the world they left behind. They should by no means be confused with NASA’s real Perseverance “Percy” rover, which has a Twitter account of its own.
@PercyRover is the work of Richard Ferro, a 29-year-old science fiction author and medical student at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut. Though not NASA-sanctioned, Ferro’s Percy is engineer-approved, getting coveted retweets and follows from respected members of the science community, including some at NASA’s own Jet Propulsion Lab. Ferro even consulted with JPL’s Doug Ellison, an engineering camera lead, about logistics ahead of the tricky Mars landing.
“You’ll typically follow an account for an official probe like the rovers that are on Mars, and it’s a very trim, clean perspective, kind of just like a PR perspective of what’s being done,” Ferro says. “I liked the idea that you can inject a little bit of personality into the robots that are doing all this work.”
Take, for instance, the official and unofficial tweets that hit the feed when Perseverance landed. NASA’s Perseverance Twitter account kept it family-friendly, letting readers know it was “safe on Mars,” adding this inspirational note: “Perseverance will get you anywhere.” @PercyRover, meanwhile, tweeted, “ALRIGHT EVERYONE TURN AROUND. I CANT LAND WITH Y’ALL WATCHING,” along with, “DEPLOY THE MF’IN PARACHUTE!” And finally, its own version of the “I lived bitch” meme, hospital bed selfie and all.
While NASA describes the protective cover for Perseverance’s sampling system as a “belly pan,” @PercyRover snarks, “Call it a fanny pack you cowards.” The rover’s remote-sensing SuperCam? “My laser face,” in Percy’s words. Each of the rover’s wheels has a name and distinct personality trait, à la comedian Julio Torres’ favorite shapes. “This…This is Angelica,” Percy tweeted about one deeply treaded wheel. “This wheel strikes me as a wheel that will never be satisfied.”
Ferro counts @SarcasticRover, a parody Twitter account by screenwriter Jason Filiatrault, as a major inspiration. Filiatrault’s account started chronicling the adventures of NASA’s Curiosity rover at the mission’s onset, in 2012, and is still at it today; it now has 922,000 followers. “It was hilarious seeing a personality attached to something that typically doesn’t have a personality,” Ferro says of his predecessor.
But Ferro, who is Latino, wanted his parody account to sound different. He points out that the rover was put together by “a very diverse community of scientists and engineers” at NASA’s JPL. “We’re sending this Earth-based machine to another planet to find evidence of life, to go do something very unique and kind of pioneering. There’s a very immigrant perspective,” he adds.
“I felt that it was appropriate to give that immigrant voice to the rover because I’m the child of immigrants — I’m Costa Rican and Cuban — and that is just something that’s always been a part of my experience,” he says. “So I definitely felt a connection to Perseverance through that.”
Other people have felt that connection, too. Humans, as we know, are really into personifying inanimate objects — especially those designed to be shipped off to work in some faraway, lonesome place. The WALL-E effect, if you will. We celebrate their triumphs, and when they go dark, we mourn them like we would the death of a fellow human being.
The pandemic, with all its attendant loneliness, has only heightened peoples’ attachment to the Mars rover. “Percy was floating through space for seven months,” Ferro says. “There were points during the transition period where the rover was in space for a really extended period of time, and I was in month, like, seven of quarantine, and I realized I was in quarantine as long as the rover was going to take to get all the way to Mars.
“I think that people connect with that and they are able to relate to this mission more than they might have with other missions,” Ferro says. “Space is an incredible area to explore and pioneer, but there’s also that isolating factor. I think that a lot of people appreciate that now, given everything we’ve gone through.” Percy coming across as “a disgruntled rover on a government salary” or complaining that Netflix isn’t working in space further forges that link.
Of course, the jokes and appeals to our empathy are ultimately a sideshow to the real thing people back on Earth are so invested in: the science itself, the search for alien life.
“Space is an incredible area to explore, but there’s also that isolating factor.”
Perseverance is looking for evidence of ancient life on Mars, a possibility that has intrigued humankind since the very discovery of planets beyond our own. And thanks to our current and ever-improving technological capabilities, everyday citizens can keep up with each new development. NASA’s live-streamed event of the Perseverance landing has been viewed more than 21 million times on YouTube as of mid-March, a month out from its air date, and if past interest in the fates of the Mars rovers is any indication, people will stick around for the duration of the mission.
After a year of gnawing isolation, what better symbol to cling to than a rover named Perseverance, rummaging a barren world for evidence that something once lived there?
Though their delivery toes the line of absurdity, @PercyRover endeavors to avoid the kind of viral fake science Twitter is so known for. “I make an effort to make it clear that this is a parody, because you’re going to get a lot more of the official science from the @NASAPersevere account,” Ferro says. “I make an effort to take directly from the raw imaging on NASA’s website” for the utmost veracity.
Ferro says he tries to make sure there’s at least “some kind of reality to it” when discussing things like the rover’s instruments. “For instance,” he says, “MOXIE [Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment] is an instrument that’s on Perseverance that takes the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere on Mars, and it works to convert it to breathable oxygen. The joke that Percy has on a diagram that I made was, ‘This is the instrument the humans forced me to bring along because humans can’t breathe carbon dioxide, and they refuse to get over that character flaw.’”
In the more than eight months since Perseverance’s launch, @PercyRover has taken off to a degree their creator “had no idea” the account would reach, gaining a ton of fans and only the occasional haters — most of them Elon Musk reply guys upset by a tweet pointing out the shortcomings of Musk’s Mars colonization ambitions. There’s really only one thing that gets Percy’s blood boiling: Venus. The parody rover’s long-standing beef with the second planet from the sun is now almost as much a drawing point for followers as its Mars updates.
Percy is generally open to making friends and has no qualms about other existing joke accounts — Ferro even did the profile art for @GinnyHelicopter, a parody of the small Mars helicopter that rides with Perseverance. They’ve also been known to retweet @LucyProbe, a parody of NASA’s Lucy spacecraft, which will launch later this year to study asteroids. But Venus, a planet where scientists recently detected what could be chemical evidence of life? Don’t even get them started.
“The personality that I created for Percy is a bit of a drama queen, a bot that personally likes getting attention,” Ferro says. “And so, they’re on their way to Mars, having a good time in space, and then all of a sudden this news article comes out that there’s life, maybe, on Venus,” Ferro says, laughing. “Percy’s whole mission is to find evidence of life on Mars, and then this planet is just going to pull the rug out from under this rover’s, uh, wheels right before it even gets to Mars? I mean, that’s not cool.
“So Percy has some beef with Venus, has some beef with phosphine [the aforementioned life-indicative compound]. If you bring a phosphine in front of Percy, you know, just system overload — it just doesn’t go well.” Thankfully, at least for Percy’s sake, some scientists have since cast doubt on the phosphine findings.
As it stands, Percy (er, Ferro) has no plans to stop tweeting spicy Mars takes, and considering the nature of the expedition, fresh material is sure to keep coming.
In the short term, the mission is chugging away at a lot of firsts, including the first powered flight on another planet when the Ingenuity Mars helicopter attempts its maiden flight. That may happen as soon as early April, NASA says. It could be years still before the rover comes across anything hinting at a microbial past on the red planet, if that ever happens at all. But if and when that day comes, Percy may well be the one you turn to for the tea.
Ferro says it’s been fulfilling to be able to tell people about space, something he loves, and make them laugh in the process. Doing that doesn’t feel like work, Ferro says, and even the spiciest of tweets are all posted in good fun. Unless, of course, NASA ever launches a Venus rover. In that case, he says, “Percy’s going to have some words.”