After three years of service, NASA's Ingenuity Helicopter has flown on Mars for the last time. Earlier this month, during its 72nd flight, Ingenuity stopped communicating with the Perseverance rover. Although NASA later reestablished contact with the helicopter, it emerged that at least one of Ingenuity's carbon fiber rotor blades was damaged during a landing on January 18th. The helicopter is upright and is still in contact with ground controllers, but it's no longer capable of flight.
Ingenuity far outlasted its original planned lifespan. NASA designed the helicopter to carry out up to five test flights over 30 days. But it stayed in service for over three years. Ingenuity flew over 14 times farther than originally anticipated and it had a total flight time of over two hours.
“The historic journey of Ingenuity, the first aircraft on another planet, has come to end,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement. “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.”
After Ingenuity's initial five flights, NASA decided to keep the helicopter running as an operations demonstration. It scouted ahead for Perseverance.
On January 18, the Ingenuity team planned a short vertical flight so they could pinpoint the helicopter's location after it had to make an emergency landing on its previous jaunt. The chopper reached a height of 40 feet and hovered for 4.5 seconds before descending at a rate of 3.3 feet per second. However, it lost contact with Perseverance when it was about three feet above the surface.
It's not clear how the rotor blade sustained damage. NASA's looking into whether the blade struck the surface. Perseverance is too far away to take a look at Ingenuity itself. The chopper's own camera spotted damage on the shadow of a rotor blade.
The hardy helicopter endured tough terrain, a dead sensor, dust storms (after which was able to clean itself) and a winter on Mars. The Ingenuity team will wind down the helicopter's operations after carrying out final tests and downloading the last data and imagery from its memory. After making history as the first aircraft from Earth to conduct a powered, controlled flight on another planet, all Ingenuity can do now is rest easy on the surface of Mars.