Nasa’s Mars helicopter spots ‘otherworldly’ wreckage on Red Planet caused by space agency

An aerial survey of a section of Mars by Nasa’s Ingenuity helicopter has revealed “otherworldly” images of the cone-shaped backshell which protected the robotic explorer during its fiery descent toward the Martian surface on 18 February 2021.

Entry, descent, and landing on Mars is a challenge for any mission, with vehicles enduring extreme gravitational forces, high temperatures, and pressure changes as they enter Mars’ atmosphere at nearly 20,000 kph (12,500 mph).

While Nasa’s Perseverance rover had the best-documented Mars landing in history, with cameras showing everything from parachute inflation to touchdown, and the rover also imaged debris from the parachute and the blackshell earlier, scientists say the new images from the helicopter provide more detail and “a different vantage point”.

“If they either reinforce that our systems worked as we think they worked or provide even one dataset of engineering information we can use for Mars Sample Return planning, it will be amazing. And if not, the pictures are still phenomenal and inspiring,” Ian Clark, who worked on Perseverance’s parachute system, said in a statement.

“There’s definitely a sci-fi element to it. It exudes otherworldly, doesn’t it?” Dr Clark from Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), told The New York Times.

Aerial images of the backshell and debris from its impact on the Martian surface at about 126kph (78mph) suggest its protective coating has remained intact during the lander’s atmospheric entry.

“Many of the 80 high-strength suspension lines connecting the backshell to the parachute are visible and also appear intact,” Nasa noted.

While only a third of the parachute can be seen in the new images, Nasa scientists say the canopy shows no signs of damage from the supersonic airflow during inflation.

They say the images took many pre-planned flights and careful manoeuvres for the helicopter to take, adding that “several weeks of analysis” will be needed for a conclusive verdict on the wreckage.

“To get the shots we needed, Ingenuity did a lot of maneuvering, but we were confident because there was complicated maneuvering on flights 10, 12, and 13. Our landing spot set us up nicely to image an area of interest for the Perseverance science team on Flight 2, near ‘Séítah’ ridge,” said Håvard Grip, chief pilot of Ingenuity at JPL.

Scientists say this new area of operations for the rotorcraft in the dry river delta of Mars’ Jezero Crater is a dramatic departure from the “modest, relatively flat” terrain the helicopter had been flying over since its first flight.

“Rising more than 130ft (40m) above the crater floor and filled with jagged cliffs, angled surfaces, projecting boulders, and sand-filled pockets, the delta promises to hold numerous geologic revelations – perhaps even proof that microscopic life existed on Mars billions of years ago,” Nasa noted.

Data provided by the helicopter would help the Perseverance team assess potential science targets for its rover to explore and also offer route-planning assistance.

Nasa says Ingenuity may even be deployed to image geologic features too far away for the Perseverance rover to reach.

Scientists say the helicopter may also come in handy to scout out landing zones and sites on the Martian surface where sample caches could be deposited for Nasa’s proposed Mars Sample Return program.


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