You know how it is: something gets stuck to your foot, and when it finally falls off, you’re not sure what it was or whether your shoe actually needed it. The Ingenuity chopper dropped an unknown object on the surface of Mars during its 33rd journey, suggesting that some problems accompany humanity everywhere.
The official statement from NASA on the subject is a little dry. The announcement reads, without speculating on the nature of the FOD, “A small bit of foreign object debris (FOD) was spotted in film from the Mars helicopter’s navigation camera (Navcam) for a portion of its 33rd trip.”
The FOD, according to NASA, was visible from the start of the 33rd trip until about halfway through, when it dropped. It was not apparent on the Navcam film from the prior flight. The statement adds that there is “No sign of vehicle damage personnel is working to determine the source of the debris.”
There is no indication of how it got there, but the object (upper right, in case you missed it) seems far more like a plastic bag or piece of cling-wrap than anything Ingenuity would have found on Mars.
Although it appears unusual that an alien left some rubbish on the Martian surface for Ingenuity’s foot to step on, it is perhaps not as unlikely as someone at JPL being careless enough to put their lunch wrapper in the Atlas V that delivered Ingenuity (and Perseverance) to the red planet. Perhaps more pertinent in this case is Perseverance’s observation in August that some of the nettings were discarded upon its parachute descent.
The object in question presumably weighs less than a billionth of a gram, compared to the 7,119 kilograms (15,694 lb) of debris that researchers recently estimated to reside on Mars as a result of ongoing and past robot missions. This appears to be the kind of object that could be blown practically anywhere by even the thin Martian atmosphere, in contrast to most of the Martian vehicles, which are expected to remain intact and eventually be covered by the desert sands. Perhaps this qualifies it as an unidentified flying object.
NASA may be happy that there is no Martian authority to levy punishment for littering as an Australian local council did after a piece of Skylab dropped on them.
Having said that, we shouldn’t be harsh on the Ingenuity team. In addition to making a helicopter fly on a planet with an extremely thin atmosphere, they also managed to extend a mission that was only intended for five flights by 28 more. This is encouraging for the employment of helicopters on upcoming missions, and in the interim, Ingenuity has served as Perseverance’s efficient scout in its effort to gather the most fascinating samples for storage and eventual return to Earth.