NASA Pours One Out For Ingenuity Mars Helicopter After One Heck Of A Run

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NASA’s historic Ingenuity Mars Helicopter has flown its final mission on the Red Planet after a communications dropout led to at least one damaged rotor blade. The iconic helicopter was originally designed as a technology demonstration to provide up to five experimental test flights over a 30-day period. It lasted for an astounding 72 flights.

Ingenuity landed on Mars February 18, 2021, attached to the underbelly of NASA’s Perseverance Rover. It made its inaugural flight on April 19, 2021, proving to all on Earth that controlled flight on the Red Planet was possible. Once Ingenuity completed its scheduled five flights, NASA changed its mission to become an aerial scout for Perseverance scientists and rover drivers.

“The historic journey of Ingenuity, the first aircraft on another planet, has come to an end,” remarked NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “That remarkable helicopter flew higher and farther than we ever imagined and helped NASA do what we do best - make the impossible, possible. 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.”

The ill-fated flight occurred on January 18, 2024, as the team had planned on making a short vertical flight to determine its location after the aircraft had executed an emergency landing on its previous flight. While flight data showed that Ingenuity achieved a maximum altitude of 40 feet (12 meters), and was able to hover for 4.5 seconds before beginning its descent, the aircraft suffered a communications loss at around 3 feet (1 meter) with Perseverance. The team was able to reestablish communication and collect important data, however, imagery showed damage to at least one rotor blade several days later. The cause of communication loss is still being investigated.

“At NASA JPL, innovation is at the heart of what we do,” remarked Laurie Leshin of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. “Ingenuity is an exemplar of the way we push the boundaries of what’s possible every day. I’m incredibly proud of our team behind this historic technological achievement and eager to see what they’ll invent next.”

Ingenuity lasted nearly 1,000 Martian days, which was 33 times longer than the original plan. During its life span, the aircraft was upgraded with the ability to autonomously choose landing sites in less than ideal locations, suffered a dead sensor, cleaned itself after multiple dust storms, and operated from 48 different airfields. It was also able to survive the harsh Martian winter, even though it was only designed to operate in the spring.

“It’s humbling Ingenuity not only carries onboard a swatch from the original Wright Flyer, but also this helicopter followed in its footsteps and proved flight is possible on another world,” remarked Ingenuity’s project manager, Teddy Tzanetos of NASA JPL. “The Mars helicopter would have never flown once, much less 72 times, if it were not for the passion and dedication of the Ingenuity and Perseverance teams. 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.”

Now that Ingenuity’s flights have come to a bittersweet end, the team will perform final tests on the helicopter’s systems and download the remaining imagery and data in Ingenuity’s onboard memory.