You know how it is – something sticks to your foot and when it comes loose you can’t tell what it was or if your shoe needed it. Some problems follow humanity everywhere, and perhaps this is one of them, with the Ingenuity helicopter dropping something unknown on the surface of Mars during its 33rd flight.
NASA’s official comment on the matter is pretty dry. “A small piece of foreign object debris (FOD) was seen in footage from the Mars Helicopter Navigation Camera (Navcam) for part of its 33rd flight,” the statement said, without speculating on the nature of the FOD.
NASA also informs us that the FOD “was not visible in the Navcam footage from the previous flight” but was seen from the 33rd the flight begins until about halfway down, when it fell. There is “No indication of damage to the vehicle […] teams are working to determine the source of the debris,” the statement continued.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
The object (top right, if you missed it) looks a lot more like a plastic bag or piece of cling film than anything Ingenuity would have acquired on Mars, but there’s no telling how it got there.
Even if someone at JPL was loose enough to drop their lunch wrapper on the Atlas V that carried Ingenuity (and Persistence) to the red planet, it seems a little unlikely that it was invisible for 32 missions—probably not as unlikely as aliens leaving some junk on the surface of Mars for Ingenuity’s foot to catch. Perseverance’s observation in August of some of the nets being jettisoned during the parachute landing may be more relevant here.
The object in question likely weighs a fraction of a gram, compared to the 7,119 kilograms (15,694 pounds) of debris recently estimated to be on the surface of Mars as a result of current and previous robotic missions. However, where most of the Martian vehicles are likely to remain intact and eventually be covered by desert sand, this looks like something that could be blasted almost anywhere even by the thin Martian atmosphere. Perhaps that would make it an unidentified flying object.
Having been fined for littering by a local Australian council after part of Skylab landed on them, NASA can be relieved there is no Martian authority to do the same.
That said, we shouldn’t be too hard on the Ingenuity team. Not only did they manage to get a helicopter to fly to another planet – one with a very thin atmosphere – but a mission that was planned for five flights has completed another 28 and is still going. This bodes well for the use of helicopters on future missions – and in the meantime, Ingenuity has acted as an effective probe for Perseverance in its effort to collect the most interesting samples for storage and future return to Earth.