Debris from NASA’s Mars landings still creates little mysteries about the Red Planet

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An image taken by the Ingenuity helicopter of the parachute and backshell crash site on Mars.

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Mars Perserverance rover and its helicopter companion Ingenuity search the Red Planet for signs of ancient life, but they also run into debris from their own landing.

Detailed color images taken by the Ingenuity helicopter show an abandoned parachute and rear shell located 1 km from the Perseverance landing site. These parts were part of the entry, descent, and landing (EDL) gear that was dropped on the planet’s surface when Perseverance landed on Mars on February 18, 2021. A NASA blog post showed that the finds of debris did not stop there. After the parachute and back shell were identified, other smaller pieces of EDL hardware were spotted on the planet.

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On April 16, 2022, NASA spotted unusually bright material in a Mastcam-Z image. The “shiny material” was unidentifiable until the Perseverance Rover entered the Hogwallow Flats area, nearly 2km from the crash, and returned a high-resolution 360-degree Mastcam-Z panorama.

It was then that the EDL team was able to identify the shiny material as multi-layered insulation (MLI), possibly belonging to the sky crane. The material matched the pattern of the thermal blankets used on the spacecraft, which are made of perforated aluminized Kapton (PAK) or Mylar, likely what appeared as a shiny material in the images.

As more images of the Hogwallow Flats area were produced, more EDL debris was found, such as a piece of Dacron netting, commonly used in thermal blankets.

Dragon on Mars

The Mastcam-Z image shows Dracon material found on Mars.

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

Although the mystery of the nature of the objects seemed to be solved, the question of how they got away from the accident remained. NASA speculates that this could be the result of the energy from the crash ejecting the material into the air, with the smaller pieces being kicked out of the crash by ballistics, or just the wind blowing the pieces away.

There are no worries with debris at the time. However, the team will continue to log items as they are found. EDL debris is common in these expeditions as it was also found at the Curiosity rover site.

So other than not being very tidy, what does that mean for Perseverance and future missions?

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NASA said that with improved camera technology, future missions will be able to more easily identify this type of debris.

“Engineers designing EDL hardware for future missions will need to consider the impact (literally) of their designs on both Mars and mission requirements,” NASA said.

“In the meantime, as Perseverance continues to collect samples for possible return to Earth, Perseverance imaging teams will continue to examine terrain imagery for possible sources of EDL debris. Sampling teams will also continue to monitor potential sources of contamination to ensure the integrity of the returned sample cache.”

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