On 18 February 2021, NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover, snug in a protective flying saucer-like housing, slammed into the red planet’s thin atmosphere at 20,000 kph (12,500 mph), braving hellish entry temperatures before deploying a supersonic parachute to slow down.
Nearing the surface, it jettisoned its heat shield and dropped away from its parachute and backshell to make a rocket-powered descent to the surface of Jezero Crater where it’s been exploring ever since.
While the discarded parachute and the upper section of the rover’s entry enclosure have no bearing on Perseverance’s mission, engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory were interested in assessing the debris to collect data that may help ensure a safe touchdown for the joint NASA-ESA Mars Sample Return Lander in the years ahead.
So on 19 April, the Ingenuity helicopter, which hitched a ride to Mars clamped to the rover’s belly, flew over the debris site as part of its 26th flight, capturing 10 images of wreckage strewn across the crater floor.
“Every time we’re airborne, Ingenuity covers new ground and offers a perspective no previous planetary mission could achieve,” said Teddy Tzanetos, Ingenuity’s team lead at JPL. “Mars Sample Return’s reconnaissance request is a perfect example of the utility of aerial platforms on Mars.”
The upright backshell crashed to the surface well away from the rover at about 126 kph (78 mph), still connected to the 21.5-metre (70.5 foot) parachute by 80 high-strength suspension lines. The orange-and-white parachute is partially covered in dust, but its canopy shows no signs of damage after its supersonic inflation.
“Perseverance had the best-documented Mars landing in history, with cameras showing everything from parachute inflation to touchdown,” said Ian Clark, former Perseverance systems engineer and now Mars Sample Return ascent phase lead at JPL.
“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.”