NASA’s Mars Helicopter Snags Mysterious Foreign Object on 33rd Flight

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NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter was intended as a short-term demonstration when it was approved to ride along with the Perseverance rover. However, it’s gone above and beyond anyone’s expectations. The first-ever flying vehicle on another world has just completed its 33rd flight on Mars. It was a lot like the previous flights, except that Ingenuity appears to have stepped in something. NASA reports a mysterious “foreign debris object” (FOD) was hooked on the helicopter’s foot for part of the flight before flying off.

Ingenuity completed flight number 33 on Sept. 24, which was its 567th Sol (Martian day). The flight plan was similar to the last several — the aircraft rose to an altitude of 33 feet (10 meters) and traveled a total distance of 364 feet (111 meters) before setting down. The entire flight took a mere 55.2 seconds.

Just after Ingenuity took off, a foreign debris object (FOD) appeared on one of its legs. The record of the flight appears to show the object flapping in the breeze before dropping off. NASA says the FOD’s presence did not affect the flight, and Ingenuity landed without issue at Airfield X (NASA stopped naming the landing zones after the first one). Whatever the material was, it was not massive enough to affect the helicopter’s telemetry.

The team is currently investigating what the FOD was, but it certainly didn’t look like something you’d normally find on Mars. It looked like plastic or paper, judging by the way it moved. That means it either came from Ingenuity, Perseverance, or some other piece of NASA’s mission hardware — there’s nothing else artificial in that part of the red planet.

This region of Mars is not completely free of junk. Some months ago, Ingenuity checked out the debris from the landing sled that delivered it and Perseverance to the planet’s surface. That seems like a reasonable source of the FOD. Ingenuity was also designed using off-the-shelf materials to fly just a few times. As it nears 18 months of operations, it’s possible some part of the robot is degrading and got stuck on the foot. NASA says there’s no indication of vehicle damage, though. Hopefully, we get an answer about this in the future, if only to mark the mystery as solved.

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