On Mars, Ingenuity has come a long way with an unidentified object

The small helicopter has found a temporary travel companion and NASA will have to draw the necessary conclusions.

Since emerging from its winter dormancy in early September, the small Mars helicopter Ingenuity has once again assisted the Perseverance rover in its search for traces of past lives. And according to NASA, an unusual event came to mark her last flight; like the rover last June, the drone has also found a unexpected travel companion.

As with each of his escapades, Ingenuity captured footage of his 33rd flight using the NavCam. This is a small camera located under the frame of the machine. Normally, these shots aren’t particularly interesting; Above all, they allow engineers to ensure that each step has been carried out as planned. To a lesser extent, they also offer some images of the surface below the ship.

But this time, a little surprise awaited the drone operators. As they looked at the images, they discovered that an unexpected object had invited itself into the frame. In the video shared by NASA, we actually notice that a funny object seems to be hanging from one of the feet. In fact, there is an inconspicuous white spot on the upper right corner of the frame.

An unidentified Martian object

Its precise nature is difficult to determine. The way it wobbles suggests it’s probably a fabric or material with similar properties; during the flight, in effect, it behaves like a small flag. But it also looks slightly transparent; a texture that would almost make it look like a plastic bag, or even a spider web.

Obviously, these hypotheses seem unlikely to say the least. The most satisfying clue suggests that this unknown object is indeed debris from the wreckage of another Mars mission, like the ones Ingenuity visited in April (see our article).

And for now, the space agency is just as stumped as the public. “The Ingenuity and Perseverance teams are currently working to discern the origin of the debris,” NASA said in a brief statement. However, it specifies that “all telemetry data collected during the flight and after landing is normal and shows no signs of damage to the vehicle.”

The space debris problem doesn’t stop at Earth’s orbit

This is an accuracy that is anything but anecdotal in this specific case. The images show a mysterious object disengaged during flight; and since it was apparently a material with very little rigidity, it could have deal considerable damage if it had gotten stuck in a rotor at that time.

Therefore, it is not simply out of curiosity that NASA hopes to discover the nature of this object; it is also a question of the sustainability of Mars exploration. Remember that currently only a handful of machines share these vast barren plains; and if the latter already manage to collect waste without realizing it, there is cause for concern for the rest of the operations. Remember that some actors like Elon Musk are already planning colonization in a good and proper way. However, these missions will inevitably produce much more debris than the journey of these few machines.

In the end, there is nothing to dramatize. Ingenuity continues to perform like a charm and continues to proudly deliver services far beyond what the agency originally expected. But the moral of the story is that NASA is going to have to pay special attention to debris management. And it’s not just about Earth’s orbit. This is also a point that must be taken into account on the planets where humanity plans to settle.

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