When a spacecraft dramatically parachutes down to a distant world, debris will inevitably litter the landing site.
NASA has documented the diverse debris scattered by the 2021 landing of its high-tech Perseverance rover, including a strange-looking ball of tangled, "spaghetti"-like material, which the space agency believes they've identified.
"It should be noted that discarded debris are common in space missions," NASA scientist Justin Maki wrote in a Mars blog.
NASA suspects the tangled detritus — which stirred intrigue on the internet — is a piece of netting (called "Dacron netting") that is used in thermal blankets to protect the spacecraft from extreme temperatures and conditions, like when plunging through the Martian atmosphere at some 12,000 mph. Elsewhere, the rover found other scattered remnants of thermal material.
This particular ball of netting looks strange and tangled because it was likely "subjected to strong forces," NASA's Maki concluded, perhaps when a key part of the rover's landing gear crashed nearby, leaving a plume of smoke rising from the Martian desert.
The car-sized rover will likely continue to find wind-strewn detritus as it scours the Martian surface for potential hints of past, primitive life on Mars.
Importantly, NASA is watching to ensure any samples the rover collects aren't potentially contaminated by any Earth debris. "Perseverance team members are reviewing images of the debris, checking to see if the material may pose as a potential contamination source for the sample tubes from this area," Maki said. "Although there are no immediate concerns identified by the teams at this time, the teams are documenting the EDL [Entry, Descent, and Landing gear] debris materials as they are identified."
Perseverance is rumbling through the Jezero Crater, a region planetary scientists say once teemed with water, back when large swathes of Mars were blue, not red.