The Unexpected Object The Perseverance Rover Spotted On Mars

The Perseverance rover has spotted a shiny object on Mars, but it isn't anything Martian: the shiny object in question turns out to be part of the landing equipment used during Perseverance's landing in February 2021.

It's part of a thermal blanket, which is a flexible fabric blanket made of multiple layers of Mylar films and Dacron netting (via NASA). The shiny materials on the outside of the blankets help to deflect heat and the padding inside the blankets acts as insulation to keep heat away from delicate components.

The blanket was wrapped around the descent stage, which is a rocket-powered jetpack that has eight engines pointed down toward the Martian surface (via NASA). During landing, the rover was ensconced inside the descent stage, which fired its engines to slow the speed at which it approached the surface. Once that was done, the rover was lowered away from the descent stage on cables until it landed on the surface. Then the descent stage cut the cables and moved away from the rover to avoid getting in the way.

One odd thing about finding the piece of the blanket in this particular location is that it's a decent way from where the descent stage impacted the surface. Engineers aren't quite sure how the blanket got there.

"It's a surprise finding this here," the NASA Perseverance twitter account wrote. "My descent stage crashed about 2 km away. Did this piece land here after that, or was it blown here by the wind?"

Other landing parts found on Mars

This isn't the first time part of Perseverance's landing gear has been spotted. In April 2022, Perseverance's backshell was seen from the air by the Ingenuity helicopter which traveled to Mars along with the rover. The image of the backshell was taken on April 19, 2022, and shows the full backshell facing upright on the surface.

The backshell is part of the landing system, which protected the rover and helicopter as they traveled through the Martian atmosphere at high speeds. Slowed by a parachute, the backshell was designed to break away from the rover during the descent so that the rover didn't get tangled in the parachute lines as it landed. The backshell was necessary because, during the landing process, the rover is moving very fast through the atmosphere. Even though the Martian atmosphere is very thin, at just 1% of the density of Earth's atmosphere, this is still enough to create considerable friction as the rover moves through it while landing. This friction creates heat, and the backshell takes the brunt of this heat to ensure that the high temperatures don't damage the rover.

The NASA team wasn't necessarily expecting to find the backshell, but spotting a piece of the landing gear after it has been used can be a useful way to gather information on how the system performed, so it was requested that the helicopter take a photo for analysis.