Ingenuity Mars helicopter visits Perseverance landing gear crash site
On April 19, 2022, the one-year anniversary of its first flight, NASA's Ingenuity Mars helicopter visited and took images of the crash site of the protective aeroshell and parachute that helped deliver it and the Perseverance rover to the Red Planet.
When the Perseverance rover touched down on Mars on February 18, 2021, it was the culmination of an intricate, fiery, technological ballet. When the spacecraft hit the Martian atmosphere at hypersonic speed, it was protected by a polymer heat shield and a conical aerospace shell. Once the atmosphere slowed it down to supersonic speed, the biggest parachute ever sent to Mars deployed to cut its speed further. Finally, the shell and parachute jettisoned and a rocket-powered cradle hovered over the Martian surface and winched the rover to the ground before flying off to crash a safe distance away.
This was the same sequence of events that was used to land the Curiosity rover, but Perseverance was different in that this was the most carefully chronicled planetary landing yet thanks to banks of cameras and instruments that recorded the descent, and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter that watched from on high and also located the parachute shortly afterwards.
This would have been the end of the episode, but in April 2022 Perseverance's cameras spotted the parachute and aeroshell laying on the Martian sands. This would have been just an interesting footnote because to reach the chute would have required a considerable detour, but the mission has benefited from an exceptionally lucky break.
In April 2021, Perseverance deployed the first aircraft ever to be sent to another planet, the Ingenuity helicopter. On April 19, it took to the red-ringed skies for a series of test flights that were only expected to take place over roughly 30 days before the little robotic craft broke down.
Instead, Ingenuity has proved to be remarkably resilient and has flown 26 times to date, taking on increasingly ambitious tasks, including scouting for the rover as it rolled over the Martian landscape.
Then, on April 19 at 11:37 am Mars time, Ingenuity was ordered to fly toward the parachute and aeroshell. During its 159-second flight, it reached an altitude of 26 ft (8 m) and covered 630 ft (192 m) to what was literally, since it wasn't Martian, the wreckage of an alien spacecraft.
Navigating a pre-planned course, Ingenuity circled the wreckage, taking 10 images before turning back to its designated landing area 246 ft (75 m) away. This brings the total flight time of Ingenuity to a whopping 49 minutes.
According to NASA, the purpose of Ingenuity's visit is more than historical curiosity. By studying the aeroshell and parachute, engineers hope to learn more about how well they survived the landing sequence, which could help to make future missions safer. Already the images have revealed that the aeroshell struck the surface at a speed of about 78 mph (126 km/h). More will be learned over the coming weeks with further analysis.
"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. "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."