NASA’s ground-breaking Ingenuity helicopter comes to a rest on the Red Planet.

'Ginny,' on the surface of Mars before its 54th flight, imaged by Perseverance's Mastcam-Z camera.

It has been a fun ride. NASA announced last week that after almost three years in operation, the Ingenuity helicopter has made its final flight on Mars.

This news comes after 72 flights — starting with the first one on April 19, 2021, when the four-bladed 'copter lifted off from the Wright Brothers Field site. The experimental addition to the Perseverance mission has far exceeded the original expectations that it would make five flights over 30 days. The helicopter (sometimes nicknamed "Ginny") logged over two hours flying time and traveled more than 10.5 miles (17 kilometers) in all — more than 14 times farther than initially planned. (Check out the full flight log!)

The yellow line shows the flight path of Ingenuity, and the blue helicopter icon shows its final resting place; the location of the Perseverance rover is also shown.
NASA / JPL-Caltech

"Ingenuity is an exemplar of the way we push the boundaries of what's possible every day," says Laurie Leshin (NASA-JPL) in a recent press release. "I'm incredibly proud of our team behind this historic technological achievement and eager to see what they'll do next."

The decision to terminate Ingenuity came after the helicopter sent home an image on Sol 1035 (January 18th), indicating that one of its rotor blades had sustained damage during what is now its final landing. Ingenuity had made an emergency landing on its previous flight.

Damage on the tip of one of Ingenuity's rotor blades can be seen in the blade's shadow in this image taken after the helicopter's 72nd and final flight.

On its last flight, the helicopter reached a maximum altitude of 12 meters (40 feet), hovering for 4.5 seconds before descending at 1 meter per second back to the surface. It briefly lost contact with the rover during this time; the rover was acting as relay for messages the helicopter was sending back to Earth. It then came to rest at Airfield Chi (χ) among the dunes of Neretva Vallis, a river valley in Jezero Crater.

The final landing location is about a kilometer from the Perseverance rover, which had carried the helicopter to Mars and deposited it on the surface on April 3, 2021. The two made a great pair of robotic explorers, and you could often see the rover off in the distance in images taken during Ingenuity’s travels. Safety concerns for both the rover and the helicopter dictated that Ingenuity maintain a safe distance during flight operations.

Can you see Perseverance on the far ridge, along with Ingenuity's shadow?
NASA / JPL-Caltech

Ingenuity's Legacy

As an experimental payload, Ingenuity's main objective was to test technology rather than gather science: It flew to demonstrate that powered flight on another world was even possible. The atmosphere near the Martian surface presented a challenge, being only about 1% as dense as Earth’s air is at sea level. In order to fly, Ingenuity had to spin its double rotors up to 2,900 times per minute — the tips moving at 65% the speed of sound — to lift its own weight (1.8 kilograms, or 4 pounds) into the tenuous air.

Fittingly, the helicopter carries a small swatch of the original Wright Brothers Flyer, the aircraft that conducted the first powered flight on Earth.

While Ingenuity carried no scientific instruments, it did house two cameras: a high resolution Return-to-Earth (RTE) camera, and a lower-resolution navigation (NAV) camera, both of which enabled it to survey surrounding terrain. It served as a scout for Perseverance to see the ground ahead and could reach dune areas too treacherous for the rover to traverse. The helicopter even caught sight of hardware such as the back shell from Perseverance left on the surface during Perseverance's sky hook landing. Last year, two flights pushed Ingenuity to new aerodynamic limits.

Perseverance's shattered back shell, seen on Ingenuity's 26th flight on April 19th, 2022.
NASA / JPL-Caltech

The legacy of Ingenuity will pave the way for flying missions to come. NASA’s Dragonfly mission, already in development, will send a flying, nuclear-powered explorer to Saturn’s large moon Titan. That mission, set to launch in July 2028, will present completely new challenges, given that moon's thick and ice-cold atmosphere.

The current plan for the Mars Sample Return mission also calls for helicopters, like Ingenuity but with improved designs, which might help find and fetch the sample tubes that Perseverance is currently depositing on the Martian surface.

An artist's conception of Dragonfly, in flight over the surface of Titan.
NASA / Johns Hopkins APL / Steve Gribben

Meanwhile, Ingenuity will sit permanently on the surface of Mars, a testament to the first time that human-built machines took flight on another planet.


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