It blew our minds that Perseverance actually stumbled across and took pictures of its parachute a couple of weeks ago, but thanks to the little helicopter that could, we now have an aerial view of both the parachute and back shell that protected both robots and delivered them to the surface of Mars over a year ago. To quote Perseverance team member Erin Gibbons, “Space debris crash-landed on another world snapped by an aerial drone. What a timeline we live in.”
Perseverance caught a glimpse of the remains of its “secret code” parachute from around 0.8 kilometers (0.5 miles) away while retracing its steps across the Jezero crater to reach the ancient river delta it is there to study. Ingenuity – NASA’s record-breaking first powered vehicle to fly on another world – however, can get a better look from up high, which is much easier to traverse than Mars’s rocky surface.
It took these photos from an altitude of 8 meters (26 feet) during its 26th flight. You can see an incredible panorama of the field of debris here.
Ingenuity is making multiple flights to accompany Perseverance on its journey to the delta. Importantly, though, it must stay ahead of the rover to avoid flying over or past it to minimize the worst-case scenario of some kind of contact or (whispers) crash.
The helicopter was designed as a technology demo to fly over flat ground. Successful beyond NASA’s wildest dreams, it has experimented with flying over “non-flat” terrain like hills, cliffs, large boulders, and large dunes, but that can affect estimates of its position and direction, which can drift.
To ensure the safest flight paths to arrive at the delta destination ahead of Percy, Ingenuity’s team was aware of the wreckage and weighed up the risks of flying near or even over it as it could affect the helicopter’s altimeter (a laser that measures the height off the ground it is). However, according to NASA’s Jet propulsion Laboratory, engineers working on the Mars sample return program requested aerial shots as details of the wreckage can provide information on how the landing gear performed during the rover’s entry, descent, and landing.
The parachute and cone-shaped backshell protected the rover and its companion during its nerve-wracking fiery descent toward the Martian surface on February 18, 2021. Without it, we wouldn’t have either the scientific knowledge or the incredible images Perseverance and Ingenuity send back to Earth that inspire people and make them invested in exploring our neighboring planet.