An aerial survey of a section of Mars by NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter revealed “otherworldly” images of the cone-shaped reinforcement that protected the robotic Perseverance rover during its fiery descent toward the Martian surface on February 18, 2021. .
Entering, descending and landing on Mars is a challenge for any mission, as the rovers endure extreme gravitational forces, high temperatures and pressure changes as they enter the Martian atmosphere at nearly 12,500 miles (20,000 kilometers) per hour.
While NASA’s Perseverance rover had the best-documented Mars landing in history, with cameras showing everything from parachute inflation to touchdown. The rover also took images of the remains of the parachute and booster, scientists say the new images from the helicopter provide more detail and “a different point of view”.
“If it reinforces that our systems worked as we think they did or even provides an engineering information dataset that we can use for Mars sample return planning, that will be amazing. And if not, the visuals are phenomenal and inspiring,” Ian Clark, who worked on Perseverance’s parachute system, said in a statement.
“It definitely has a sci-fi element to it. It seems like something from another world, doesn’t it? Dr. Clark of NASA’s JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) told The New York Times.
Aerial images of the booster and debris from its impact on the Martian surface at about 78 miles (126 kilometers) per hour suggest that its protective shell remained intact during the lander’s atmospheric entry.
“Many of the 80 high-strength suspension lines connecting the booster 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 supersonic airflow during inflation.
They say the images captured many pre-planned flights and careful maneuvering 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 were tricky maneuvers on flights 10, 12 and 13. Our landing site prepared us very well to image an area of interest to the Perseverance science team on Flight 2, near the ‘Séítah’ ridge,” said Håvard Grip, chief pilot for Ingenuity at JPL.
Scientists say this new area of operations for the helicopter in the dry river delta of Mars’ Jezero Crater is a dramatic departure from the “modest and relatively flat” terrain over which the helicopter had flown since its first flight.
Rising more than 130 feet (40 meters) above the crater floor and filled with jagged cliffs, angled surfaces, jutting boulders and sand-filled pockets, the delta promises to host numerous geological revelations, perhaps even proof that microscopic life existed on Mars billions of years ago,” NASA said.
The data provided by the helicopter would help the Perseverance team assess potential science targets for their rover to explore and also offer route planning assistance.
NASA says Ingenuity can even be deployed to image geological features too far away for the Perseverance rover to take.
Scientists say the helicopter may also be useful for exploring landing zones and sites on the Martian surface where samples could be deposited for NASA’s proposed Mars Sample Return program.