NASA Sees ‘Otherworldly’ Debris on Mars with Ingenuity Helicopter

The object resembles a flying saucer that crashed on Mars.

And indeed it is.

But it doesn’t belong to aliens.

Instead, the wreckage is the work of NASA, a component called a backshell that came loose during the Perseverance rover’s landing on the red planet’s surface in February 2021.

“There’s definitely a science fiction element to it,” Ian Clark, an engineer who worked on Perseverance’s parachute system, said of the photographs, which were released Wednesday. “He exudes from another world, doesn’t he?”

During its 26th flight last week, Ingenuity took 10 photos during its 159 seconds in the air covering 1,181 feet. These show that backshell, or the upper half of the landing pod that protected Perseverance and Ingenuity as they plunged into the Martian atmosphere. Still attached is the 70-foot-wide parachute that slowed the vehicles’ descent.

The parachute and backshell separated from the rover at an altitude of 1.3 miles. A rocket-powered system called the Skycrane carried Perseverance the rest of the way to the surface, while the backshell and parachute landed more than a mile away to the northwest.

The backshell, nearly 15 feet in diameter, hit the ground at about 78 miles per hour, partially shattered. Otherwise, everything appears to be in good condition – no obvious signs of charring. The parachute appears to be intact, as do the suspension lines that connect the parachute to the rear hull. But engineers have begun to scrutinize the new images in detail.

“They say a picture is worth 1,000 words, but it’s also worth an infinite amount of engineering knowledge,” said Clark.

Studying the backshell remains could prove useful for NASA’s next big adventure on Mars — bringing rocks and soil from Mars to Earth for further study. That mission, called Mars Sample Return, will need to place two probes on the surface – a rover to collect rock samples drilled by Perseverance and a small rocket to launch the samples into orbit for another spacecraft to pick up and bring back to Earth. .

“We use all of our best models, all of our best analysis tools,” said Clark. Images help verify how models and analyzes performed, adding confidence to models in the future.

Kenneth Farley, the mission’s project scientist, was fascinated not only by the “truly spectacular” images of the hardware, but also by what the hardware landed on.

“Remarkably, this debris ended up right at the contact between the two rock formations on the crater floor,” Farley said in an email. The two formations, called Seitah and Maaz, consist of volcanic rocks. But they are very different in composition. Seitah is rich in olivine that formed in thick magma, perhaps a lava lake. Maaz, which is at the top and therefore likely younger, has a similar composition to most basaltic lava flows – full of known minerals like pyroxene and plagioclase, but with little to no olivine.

A line of rocks running from the backshell to an area near the parachute is where the two formations meet. “We want to know how these rocks might be related to each other,” Dr. Farley.

Mission scientists were so intrigued by the geology that Ingenuity made another pass across the dividing line between Seitah and Maaz on Sunday. These photos will be sent back to Earth on Thursday.

Perseverance was also busy during his travels. On April 2, she snapped a series of photos of the tiny Martian moon Phobos passing in front of the sun, a partial eclipse of the potato-like object. Detailed measurements of Phobos’ orbit give insight into the interior structure of Mars.

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