NASA released photos of the debris field from Perseverance‘s landing on Mars in February 2021. Jettisoning pieces of equipment during the launch and landing sequence is part of any space mission. Being able to survey them later is a sheer technological marvel. But it’s hard not to see the photos as anything more than humans leaving trash on Mars.
This isn’t the first trash we’ve left, just the first time we’ve seen it. Everything we’ve ever sent to Mars is still there, including old rovers and their landing equipment. NASA and the European Space Agency are working on return trips. A future mission will pick up the samples Perseverance collects for analysis back here on Earth. These are all steps towards the goal of manned missions to Mars.
Perseverance’s cameras return high quality color photos and video. The rover recently took pictures of the debris field from a distance. With the addition of the Ingenuity flyover, NASA can now analyze how these crucial pieces of the landing held up. The initial response is positive. The 70 foot diameter parachute seems intact, as do the cables connecting it to the backshell.
The sequence below shows when the backshell and parachute were jettisoned. The rover separated from both more than a mile above the Martian surface. They landed at roughly 78 miles per hour, while the rover touched down delicately.
Mars isn’t the first place in space humans have left a mess. There’s over 400,000 pounds of material on the moon. The Apollo astronauts left behind mementos like the American flag, golf balls, and family photos. They also abandoned pieces of their lunar landers and scientific equipment. There’s even human waste on the moon, bags left behind from the trip there. It’s all part of the plan. The less astronauts bring back, the more moon rocks and other samples can return to Earth.
Humans have also cluttered Earth’s orbit with space junk. NASA can track the larger pieces, but much of it is too small and yet remains a threat to spacecraft and the ISS. As on Earth, we’ve really got to plan our missions to the heavens with the long-term future in mind.
Melissa is Nerdist’s science & technology staff writer. She was accepted into a Mars simulation in 2017, but decided not to go. Melissa also moderates “science of” panels at conventions and co-hosts Star Warsologies, a podcast about science and Star Wars. Follow her on Twitter @melissatruth.