NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter Has Taken Its Final Flight

Originally designed for up to five flights on Mars, Ingenuity performed 72 over three years, until one of its rotor blades was damaged during landing on January 18

Ingenuity helicopter with its rotor blades out on the rocky Martian surface
A photo of Ingenuity taken by the Perseverance rover in April 2023. The helicopter arrived on Mars attached to Perseverance in February 2021. NASA / JPL-Caltech / ASU / MSSS

After exploring Mars’ surface for much longer than anyone expected, NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter has seen its days of flying come to an end.

Following a flight on January 18, at least one of the helicopter’s rotor blades was damaged during landing. As a result, Ingenuity can no longer fly, NASA said in a statement.

Ingenuity exceeded the initial goals of its mission by leaps and bounds. It was originally conceived of as a technology demonstration, with plans for up to five flights over 30 days. Instead, Ingenuity’s final flight this month was its 72nd, which took place almost three years after the helicopter first landed on Martian soil.

“It’s almost an understatement to say that it has surpassed expectations,” Lori Glaze, the director for NASA’s planetary science division, tells the New York Times’ Kenneth Chang.

The helicopter holds the distinction of being the first aircraft to make a controlled and powered flight on another planet.

“History’s first Mars helicopter will leave behind an indelible mark on the future of space exploration and will inspire fleets of aircraft on Mars—and other worlds—for decades to come,” Teddy Tzanetos, Ingenuity’s project manager, says in NASA’s statement.

Administrator Bill Nelson announces the end of Ingenuity Mars Helicopter

The agency’s Perseverance rover landed on Mars on February 18, 2021, with Ingenuity attached to it. While Perseverance explored the ground, looking for signs of ancient life, Ingenuity was tasked with getting a bird’s eye view.

One challenge was taking off in Mars’ extremely thin atmosphere—its atmospheric volume is less than 1 percent of Earth’s.

Helicopters can’t fly more than 25,000 feet above Earth’s surface. And “on Mars, the atmosphere is so thin that it’s equivalent to what Earth’s atmosphere is at [80,000] or 90,000 feet,” Laurie Leshin, director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, tells CNN’s Ashley Strickland.

Ingenuity made its first successful flight on April 19, 2021, reaching about ten feet above the Martian surface and hovering there. After completing four more flights, it started helping out Perseverance, aerially scouting possible places for the rover to explore and photographing regions that would have been tough to access from the ground.

“I am really thrilled to say Ingenuity absolutely shattered our paradigm of exploration, introducing this new dimension of aerial mobility,” Glaze said during a Thursday press briefing, per the Washington Post’s Christian Davenport.

First Video of NASA's Ingenuity Mars Helicopter in Flight, Includes Takeoff and Landing (High-Res)

Over the following years, Ingenuity spent more than two hours in the air across its 72 flights. It covered 10.5 miles and flew as high as 78.7 feet above the Martian ground. It adapted to survive Mars’ winter, performed three emergency landings and got software updates allowing it to autonomously avoid treacherous landing sites.

During the helicopter’s final flight, Ingenuity flew to a height of 40 feet as planned and hovered for 4.5 seconds before descending to the surface at a rate of 3.3 feet per second. It lost contact with Perseverance about three feet above the surface. After it reconnected, imaging showed the damaged rotor blade.

Bland terrain below Ingenuity made it difficult for the machine to navigate during this flight, Tzanetos tells the New York Times.

He tells CNN that an estimated 25 percent of the blade is missing. NASA isn’t sure yet what caused communications to be lost or how the helicopter was oriented when it landed.

“There was the initial moment, obviously, of sadness seeing that photo come down and pop onscreen, which gives a certainty of what occurred,” Tzanetos tells the New York Times. “But that’s very quickly replaced with happiness and pride and a feeling of celebration for what we pulled off.”

Perseverance is now several hundred meters from Ingenuity, but it will try to get close enough to the helicopter to photograph it, according to CNN.

During its extended mission on Mars, Ingenuity set the stage for future aircraft to perform flights on the Red Planet—and possibly on other worlds.

“Through missions like Ingenuity, NASA is paving the way for future flight in our solar system and smarter, safer human exploration to Mars and beyond,” NASA administrator Bill Nelson says in the agency’s statement.

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