On a routine mission to take aerial photographs of the Red Planet, the Mars helicopter Ingenuity captured something unusual.
In one of its photographs, scientists could see what looked like a landing capsule, a supersonic parachute, and other debris scattered across the Martian landscape. All the evidence pointed to the wreckage being from some sort of spacecraft, and as it turns out, the evidence was right.
"Technically, this *is* the wreckage of a flying saucer that crashed on Mars that belongs to aliens," Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, tweeted.
A photo from Ingenuity showing the mysterious wreckage on Mars. (NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory)
In this case, though, humans are the aliens. The wreckage was found to be from another Martian spacecraft; it is a part that detached during the landing of the Perseverance rover back in February 2021.
The photos of the wreckage, while fascinating on their own merit, will actually help scientists plan more landings on the surface of Mars in the future.
According to NASA, Martian landings are "fast-paced and stressful". A vehicle entering Mars' atmosphere can spiral into the planet at nearly 12,500 mph and wrestle with high temperatures and intense gravitational forces. Being able to study the wreckage that remains might allow scientists to make changes that allow for smoother landings in the future.
"Every time we're airborne, Ingenuity covers new ground and offers a perspective no previous planetary mission could achieve," Teddy Tzanetos, Ingenuity's team lead at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, said.
Perseverance was launched on July 30, 2020, traveling more than 290 million miles, with tiny 4-pound Ingenuity riding along as an unexpected companion. Ingenuity and Perseverance both landed on Mars on Feb. 18, 2021, exactly 203 days later.
Concept art of NASA's Ingenuity Mars Helicopter flying on the Red Planet while the Perseverance rover also works nearby. (NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory)
Ingenuity, which went from an improbable idea to Perseverance's spaceflight buddy, has proved that a helicopter-style rover can work. When Ingenuity made its first flight on April 19, 2021, it became the first human-made craft to ever fly on another planet.
There were concerns that Ingenuity wouldn't be able to make it off the ground. Mars' atmospheric volume is much thinner than Earth's, coming in at an atmospheric volume of less than 1% of our planet's, according to the European Space Agency, making it unclear if a helicopter could take off.
But take off Ingenuity did, and multiple times too. The photos were taken on Ingenuity's 26th flight on the Red Planet. During that flight, the helicopter traveled for 159-seconds and covered 1,181 feet of distance, according to NASA. All told, the marvel of modern engineering has traveled over 3.9 miles in nearly 40 minutes aloft, with plenty of flights still to go.
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