The object resembles a flying saucer that crashed on the surface of Mars.
And indeed it is.
But it does not belong to aliens.
Instead, the debris is the work of NASA, a component called the backsphere that broke off during the landing of the Persevering Rover 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 the parachute system at Perseverance, said of the images released Wednesday. “It exudes another world, right?”
During its 26th flight last week, Ingenuity took 10 photos in 159 seconds in the air at 1,181 feet. Those results show that the rear shell, or upper half of the landing capsule, protects perseverance and ingenuity as they plunge into the Martian atmosphere. The 70-foot-wide canopy was still suspended, which slowed the landing of vehicles.
The canopy and rear cover detached from the rover at a height of 1.3 miles. A rocket-powered system called the Skycrane took perseverance the rest of the way to the surface, while the background crust and canopy descended more than a mile to the northwest.
The back shell, about 15 feet in diameter, hit the ground at 78 miles per hour, partially shattering. Otherwise, everything seems to be in good condition – there are no visible signs of charring. The canopy appears to be intact as do the suspension lines connecting the canopy to the rear shell. But engineers are just beginning to examine the new images in detail.
“They say a picture is worth 1,000 words,” said Mr. Clark, “but it’s also worth an infinite amount of engineering understanding.”
Studying the remnants of the backsphere may be useful for NASA’s next big Mars adventure — bringing rocks and soil back from Mars to Earth for more detailed study. That mission, called Mars Sample Return, will need to place two landers on the surface — a rover to collect rock samples drilled by persistence, and a small rocket to launch the samples into orbit for another spacecraft to pick up and return to Earth. .
“We use our best models, all of our best analysis tools,” said Mr. Clark. Images help check how well the models and analysis worked, adding confidence to the models in the future.
Kenneth Farley, the expedition project scientist, was intrigued not only by the “really amazing” images of the devices but also what happened to the device.
“Remarkably, this debris ended right at the contact between the two rock formations in the crater floor,” Dr. Farley said in an email. Both formations, called Seitah and Maaz, are made of igneous rocks. But they are very different in composition. Setah is rich in olivine which has settled in thick magma, possibly a lava lake. Maaz, higher and therefore younger, has a similar composition to most basaltic lava flows – filled with minerals known as pyroxene and plagioclase but with little or no olivine.
The two formations meet at a line of rock that extends from the back cover to an area just next to the canopy. “We want to know how these rocks might relate to each other,” Dr. Farley said.
Expedition scientists were so fascinated by geology that creativity made another pass over the line between Sittah and Muaz on Sunday. Those images will be sent back to Earth on Thursday.
Perseverance was also busy while driving it. On April 2, a series of photos were taken of Mars’ small moon Phobos passing in front of the Sun, a partial eclipse of the potato-like object. Detailed measurements of Phobos’ orbit give hints about the internal structure of Mars.