Mars Helicopter Ingenuity will fly no more, but is still standing upright

In Memoriam for plucky robot that brushed off dead sensors and dust like they were nothing

After 72 flights and three years, NASA has retired Ingenuity, the Mars helicopter that became the first aircraft operated outside the Earth’s atmosphere.

During its last flight on January 18th, the drone lost contact with its counterpart rover Perseverance. Communication was reestablished two days later.

Unfortunately, the exercise, which was intended to be "a quick pop-up vertical flight to check out the helicopter's systems," proved fatal.

“New images confirm the #MarsHelicopter sustained rotor damage during Flight 72. Our helicopter has flown its final flight,” revealed NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) on Thursday.

NASA further detailed that the helicopter remains upright and in communication with ground controllers but now grounded.

A photo released by JPL of a rotor blade’s shadow implies a chunk of the blade was broken off or bent, most likely the former given its carbon fibre foam core material.


Ingenuity's rotor blade shadow (click to enlarge)

“We're teary eyed, but so happy it exceeded expectations,” JPL said.

NASA said now that flight operations have concluded, the Ingenuity team will perform final tests on helicopter systems and download the remaining imagery and data in the helicopter's onboard memory.

Ingenuity arrived on Mars attached to the underside of the Perseverance rover in February 2021.

It was originally designed to be a technology demonstration and was expected to perform up to five experimental test flights over the course of 30 days. Instead, the helicopter carried on for almost three years, racking up 72 flights and two hours of total flight time.

Its job function transitioned from proving powered, controlled flight on Mars was possible to demonstrating operations, and it later served as an aerial scout for Perseverance scientists and rover drivers.

Ingenuity was a survivor: it was upgraded to autonomously choose landing sites on the Martian terrain, it managed operations with a dead sensor, literally knew how to dust itself off, and it endured harsh temperatures and three emergency landings.

The lessons learned from the Mars helicopter will live on.

Ingenuity project manager Teddy Tzanetos praised the drone for having “proved flight is possible on another world.”

“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,” said Tzanetos. ®

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