72 flights later and a rotor blade short, Mars chopper loses its fight with physics

Perseverance images show violent end to Ingenuity's final flight

A little more light is being shed on the fate of NASA's Mars helicopter, Ingenuity, thanks to fresh images snapped by the Perseverance rover.

After an expectation-busting 72 flights over almost three years, the helicopter was finally retired in January 2024 when NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) found rotor damage following a quick up-and-down flight to check the helicopter's systems.

NASA confirmed that Ingenuity was upright and in communication with ground controllers but would fly no more. Images released at the time indicated that the tip of at least one rotor blade had suffered damage. Subsequent images showed a missing upper rotor blade, however, the pictures were frustratingly low resolution.

Images snapped on February 25 by Perseverance's SuperCam Remote Micro-Imager, located at the top of the rover's mast, provide the best look yet at the damage, and we can see why NASA opted to retire the poor thing.

Simeon Schmauß, a GeoVisual Design student at the Munich University of Applied Sciences, took the raw data uploaded to NASA's Perseverance mission website and shared a set of reprocessed images showing the fate of Ingenuity more clearly.

In short, the tip damage on one blade was only part of the story. In Schmauß's images, the detached rotor blade is clearly visible and lies approximately 15 meters from the helicopter. It also appears to have the same damage to its tip as the blades that are still attached.

The fact the blades all have the same damage indicates that it might have occurred before the rotor blade separated from the helicopter. However, there is still no definitive indication of what caused the damage. The distance traveled by the rotor blade suggests that it detached while in flight.

NASA has yet to comment on the latest imagery and issue a postmortem on what happened during Ingenuity's final flight. The agency intends to use similar technology to retrieve samples on the troubled Mars Sample Return mission, so learning lessons from Ingenuity's demise is vital for engineers preparing the next generation of Mars helicopters.

Regardless of what happened on that last flight, Ingenuity's mission remains an astonishing success. The helicopter was only supposed to manage five flights, and the fact it got as far as 72 flights before retirement is nothing short of jaw-dropping. ®

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