A piece of human trash has been found on Mars and as embarrassing as that sounds, at least it’s not a cigarette butt.
NASA’s Perseverance Mars Rover announced the “surprise” find Wednesday, June 15, and shared photos showing what appears to be a square of aluminum foil snagged between rocks.
Scientists believe they know what it is, but they’re still debating how it got there.
“My team has spotted something unexpected. It’s a piece of a thermal blanket that they think may have come from my descent stage, the rocket-powered jet pack that set me down on landing day last year,” NASA wrote on Facebook.
“It’s a surprise finding this here because my descent stage crashed about 2 km (1.2 miles) away. Did this piece land here after that, or was it blown here by the wind?”
If NASA was hoping for theories, they definitely asked the wrong crowd.
Commenters on social media are mostly horrified that humans are polluting a planet we’ve never visited in the flesh. Some chastised the agency for being sloppy, while a few pranksters claimed they spotted NASA trash in other Mars photos, including a Big Gulp cup.
“NASA’s Perseverance Mars Rover — please tidy up after yourself. I hope you are going to pick up your mess,” Christopher Hughes wrote on the agency’s Facebook page.
“How to pollute without physically (being) in a place: that’s another level,” Michela Gusmini posted.
“I guess it will not be long until we start seeing soda bottles, discarded fast food packaging and plastic litter on Mars. Maybe we need to send a robot with a broom to start tidying up already,” Michael Harris said.
A few commenters came to NASA’s defense, noting it might cost millions in tax dollars to pick up our trash on Mars.
“Just because humans don’t like scraps and debris, doesn’t mean the Martians hate it too. We know nothing about them. They could eat pollution for all we know,” David Savage wrote on Facebook.
It’s not clear if NASA knew a piece of thermal blanketing had fallen off during descent. The reflective material is created by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and wrapped around the space craft to regulate temperature, the agency says.
The Perseverance Rover landed on Mars in February 2021 to “seek signs of ancient life and collect samples of ... broken rock and soil ... for possible return to Earth.”
With a solid test flight of Boeing's long-delayed Starliner astronaut ferry ship behind them, NASA managers Thursday made another change to the crew that will fly the capsule's first piloted test flight, moving one astronaut off the two-person crew and moving another up to take his place.
The Starliner Crew Flight Test, or CFT, the first to carry astronauts, is not yet on NASA's flight schedule. But mission managers are hopeful the spacecraft will be ready to go by the end of the year, assuming no major problems are found in the wake of the just-completed unpiloted test flight last month.
NASA may set a target date around the end of July, after the test flight reviews are complete.
"Engineering and program reviews are expected to continue for several weeks, culminating in a launch schedule assessment at the end of July, based upon spacecraft readiness, space station scheduling needs and Eastern Range availability," NASA said in a statement.
On board for the Crew Flight Test will be commander Barry "Butch" Wilmore, a veteran astronaut assigned to the fight in 2020, and Sunita Williams, a veteran who had been in training as commander of the Starliner's first operational mission.
Unlike the first piloted test flight of SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft in 2020, which lasted 64 days, the CFT mission will be limited to about two weeks "based upon current space station resources and scheduling needs," NASA said. The agency is holding open the option of extending the flight and adding a third crew member if needed.
Stepping down from the crew is Mike Fincke, who began training for the mission when one of the original CFT crew members, Eric Boe, stepped down for unspecified reasons in January 2019. Another original crew member, Chris Ferguson, took himself off the flight in October 2020 to spend more time with his family, and a third, Nicole Mann, was moved to a SpaceX Crew Dragon mission one year later.
NASA did not say why Fincke was reassigned, but said he will continue training as a backup test pilot "and remains eligible for assignment to a future mission."
NASA originally planned to fly three astronauts aboard the Starliner's first crewed mission but after problems with the spacecraft's first unpiloted test flight in December 2019 and additional delays last year, NASA reassigned Mann to a Crew Dragon flight scheduled for launch in September.
That left Wilmore and Fincke on the CFT crew and now, Wilmore and Williams.