NASA announced its Mars helicopter, Ingenuity, had ended its mission after experiencing an anomaly during its 72nd flight on Jan. 18. Images recovered after the flight showed severe damage to at least one of the aircraft’s rotor blades, making further flights impossible. The damage spelled the end for the small helicopter that made history in 2021, when it became the first aircraft to ever fly on another planet.

What caused the mishap is still unknown, but based on preliminary data, engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) believe that uniform, sandy terrain below may have confused the helicopter’s navigation systems. They think Ingenuity made a quick sideways correction maneuver which either caused one of the blades to strike the ground or a loss of power resulting in a blade strike. Teams are still receiving data from the helicopter that may help them figure out the exact cause of the damage.

Ingenuity was a tech demo that proved flight, it was an operational demo that showed how flight can complement other kinds of operational missions like rovers, and it was an engineering demo that showed how much higher, faster, and farther we can fly,” said JPL director Laurie Leshin. “It proved that flight was even possible on Mars and I am excited to dream about future ways that we will use this capability on Mars and beyond.”

Image captured by Ingenuity on Jan. 18, after flight 72. The shadow revealed severe damage to a rotor blade. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The small helicopter, with a mass of 1.8 kilograms and rotors spanning 1.2 meters from tip to tip, accompanied NASA’s Perseverance rover as a technology demonstration. While Ingenuity was not part of the rover’s science mission, it did eventually assist it by mapping the terrain ahead of the rover. Perseverance deployed the helicopter beneath itself in early April 2021, six weeks after it arrived on Mars on Feb. 18.

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Only a few weeks later, on April 19, Ingenuity took to the sky for its historic first flight, proving that flight was possible in Mars’ thin atmosphere.  The helicopter hovered three meters above the surface for 30 seconds before touching down after a total flight time of 39 seconds. The helicopter performed this flight and all subsequent flights autonomously, as the communications delay between Mars and Earth was too long for it to be piloted manually.

On May 7, 2021, the helicopter performed its fifth flight lasting 108 seconds, during which it moved 129 meters to the south of its original location. This flight marked the end of its initial demonstration mission and the beginning of a new operations demonstration phase in which teams explored the full capabilities of a helicopter on Mars and how it could support a rover’s mission.

Ingenuity demonstrated its value by scouting the area ahead of Perseverance, helping its planners to determine a safe path for the rover. What’s more, the helicopter created three-dimensional maps of the Martian surface. During a challenging 13th flight on Sept. 4, 2021, it captured 3D images of a rock formation nicknamed Faillefeu.

“Those handfuls of examples lead us to believe that there’s only more and more value for future missions either with larger rovers – or eventually once we send humans to Mars – to have that aerial dimension available to us,” said Ingenuity project manager Teddy Tzanetos.

During its nearly three-year mission, Ingenuity faced various challenges. The helicopter’s 19th flight was delayed by a dust storm which obscured its navigation camera and interfered with its control surfaces. Later, Ingenuity was troubled by the cold of the Martian winter and flights had to be suspended temporarily. When recommissioning the helicopter for flight, teams discovered one of the navigation sensors had broken, after which they had to upload new software that allowed Ingenuity to fly without it.

During its 72 flights, Ingenuity flew for almost 129 minutes, traveling about 17 kilometers. Three flights ended in an emergency landing. This included the penultimate flight, which was terminated because the terrain below was difficult to navigate.

To recover from the emergency landing the flight before, flight 72 was supposed to be a short hop to determine the helicopter’s precise location. Ingenuity ascended to an altitude of 12 meters and hovered for 4.5 seconds. During descent, however, it lost communications one meter above the surface.

When the teams re-established communications the day after, photos revealed that 25% of one of the rotor blades was missing. The damage meant the helicopter would not be able to fly again, as the blades had to be precisely balanced to spin at over 2,500 rotations per minute and would now no longer be able to lift the aircraft in the thin Martian atmosphere.

Though damaged, Ingenuity is still able to communicate with Earth through Perseverance. “We are interested in trying to collect as much data as we can as the Perseverance rover continues on its important mission to the west and eventually, as the rover drives to the west up the crater rim at Jezero, we will lose contact,” said Tzanetos.

NASA hopes to apply what it has learned from Ingenuity to upcoming missions. This includes future Mars helicopters that carry heavier payloads, but also the Dragonfly mission to Saturn’s moon Titan which is scheduled to launch in 2028.

[Ingenuity] had a sole objective to conduct test flights in the thin atmosphere of Mars and collect important engineering data,” said Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division. “But it has gone way beyond test flights and has laid a very solid groundwork for future aerial exploration on Mars and beyond.”

(Lead image: Ingenuity on Aug. 2, 2023. This image was taken by Perseverance’s Mastcam-Z instrument ahead of the helicopter’s 54th flight. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS)

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