NASA Finds Piece of Its Own Spacecraft on Mars, Has No Clue How It Got There

NASA's Perseverance rover unexpectedly found a piece of thermal blanket from the spacecraft that carried it to Mars.
NASA's Perseverance rover unexpectedly found a piece of thermal blanket from the spacecraft that carried it to Mars.
Blanket in Perseverance's image. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech
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NASA’s Perseverance rover is tasked with looking for tantalizing rocks as it explores Mars, but the robot just found something more familiar: yet another piece of the spacecraft that carried it to the Martian surface last year. The surprise find follows pictures the mission took of wreckage from its landing in February 2021. 

On Wednesday, NASA tweeted a picture that reveals an “unexpected” fragment of the thermal blanket of the mission’s descent stage, which the agency described as “the rocket-powered jet pack” that set Perseverance down, before veering off to crash about a mile from the rover’s landing site. The descent stage was shattered by the impact and literally went up in smoke, a valiant death that Perseverance was actually able to capture in real time pictures. But not even NASA knows how it got there.

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“It’s a surprise finding this here,” NASA said in its tweet noting that the descent stage crashed two kilometers (1.2 miles) from Perseverance’s current location. “Did this piece land here after that, or was it blown here by the wind?”

For now, the details of this blanket scrap’s journey across Mars remain a mystery. However, it’s not the first time the mission has encountered spent components from the rover’s daredevil landing. In April, a small helicopter named Ingenuity, which was delivered to Mars with Perseverance, snapped aerial shots of the wreckage of the descent shell and parachute. 

This spacecraft debris provides helpful information about the complex maneuvers required to land on Mars, which can streamline future attempts to touch down on the red planet, or even other planetary surfaces. But they are also simply mesmerizing to behold, offering a reminder that humans now leave artifacts beyond on the surface of extraterrestrial worlds.