The first aircraft ever to fly on another world, NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter, captured aerial photographs of the wrecked remains of some of the components that helped deliver it and its companion, the Perseverance rover, according to a NASA press release.
The helicopter observed the remains of the parachute that slowed the spacecraft’s descent onto Mars in February 2021, as well as the backshell that protected the $2.4 billion robotic mission as it sped through Mars at 12,500 miles (20,000 kph) per hour.
After a series of maneuvers nicknamed the “seven minutes of terror” by NASA mission scientists, Perseverance touched down safely in Jezero Crater, an ancient dried up lakebed.
The rover ejected its parachute and backshell. The shell crashed into Mars at a speed of 78 miles per hour about a mile from the rover's landing site, an impact that Perseverance was able to capture in real time.
The images come courtesy of Ingenuity's 26th flight on April 19, and it has the potential to help ensure safer landings for future spacecraft such as the Mars Sample Return Lander. It is part of a campaign that would bring Perseverance’s samples of Martian rocks and atmosphere back to Earth for further detailed analysis.
“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,” said Håvard Grip, chief pilot of Ingenuity at JPL. “Our landing spot set us up nicely to image an area of interest for the Perseverance science team on Flight 27, near ‘Séítah’ ridge."
NASA scientists hope the images will help them understand how the craft handled the descent and inspire future improvements to the process. Several weeks of analysis will be needed for more of a final verdict.
“Perseverance had the best-documented Mars landing in history, with cameras showing everything from parachute inflation to touchdown,” said JPL’s Ian Clark, former Perseverance systems engineer and now Mars Sample Return ascent phase lead.
Clark continued, “But Ingenuity’s images offer 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.”
During its time on Mars, the Ingenuity helicopter has now spent 49 minutes flying and traveled 3.9 miles (6.2 km) in total, according to NASA. Flight 27 is set for the Séítah ridge in the Jezero crater dry river valley. This area represents the leftovers of a river delta that once spilled into a lake in the Jezero crater when the Mars surface was wet.
One of the main goals of the current mission is to look for signs that ancient Martian life may have existed in the delta, and Ingenuity's job will be to get a view of the topography around the ridge, in addition to scouting a route for the rover.