January 25, 2024
4 min read
NASA’s enterprising Mars helicopter and its remarkable 72 flights offered a new vision of planetary exploration
After nearly three years soaring through the red skies of Mars, NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter is permanently grounded.
The agency launched the little four-pound chopper in July 2020, with Ingenuity hitchhiking to Mars in the belly of NASA’s Perseverance rover. The tissue box-size craft made its first-ever flight in April 2021. Launched as a month-long technology demonstration, the helicopter was built to make a mere five hops to prove that powered flight is possible on the Red Planet.
Instead, Ingenuity endured for nearly 1,000 Martian days, becoming a long-term scout for the car-sized Perseverance, giving planetary scientists a bird’s-eye view of the terrain they wanted to explore. In the process, the little aircraft inspired scientists, engineers and space fans to imagine a new future, one in which helicopters regularly take to the skies of the Red Planet and beyond.
“It’s almost an understatement to say that it has surpassed expectations,” Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, said during a press conference on January 25. “Ingenuity absolutely shattered our paradigm of exploration, introducing this new dimension of aerial mobility.”
NASA ended the mission after evidence that Ingenuity was no longer able to fly after at least one of its rotor blades got damaged during touchdown on its most recent and 72nd flight on January 18. That flight had been designed as a short vertical flight to test Ingenuity’s systems after its previous flight ended unexpectedly early. But during the little test hop, communications shut down early, signaling an issue.
The helicopter’s handlers reestablished communication with the little chopper on January 20, and they had hoped to get Ingenuity flying again. But an image taken after that final flight shows the shadow of a battered rotor tip—one that’s lost perhaps a quarter of its length—against the reddish Martian sand. The damage suggests the rotor hit the surface on the way down.
“Going through a blade strike for a helicopter is typically the end,” Teddy Tzanetos, Ingenuity project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said during the press conference. Tzanetos said that terrain under recent flights appeared particularly featureless and difficult to navigate, potentially triggering the two errant landings that doomed the aircraft; he also noted that engineers believe some, or all, of the other blades are also damaged.
That said, the mission isn’t quite over. NASA still needs to conduct¥ final tests and download data that remain on the helicopter. Currently, Perseverance is too far away to see Ingenuity, although Tzanetos said that the rover may come close enough to get some low-quality photographs.
The mission’s tenure is particularly remarkable considering that when Ingenuity launched, there was no guarantee it would be able to fly at all. The Martian atmosphere has a density just 1 percent that of Earth’s atmosphere, so a Red Planet helicopter’s blades don’t have much air to create lift against. To compensate, Ingenuity’s rovers spun incredibly fast—2,400 rotations per minute under normal conditions and even faster when seasonal changes made the atmosphere still thinner.
But Ingenuity settled into its flight routine with aplomb. After the helicopter breezed through its scheduled five flights, NASA decided to fly the aircraft for as long as it lasted. All told, the helicopter logged more than two hours in flight and covered 10.5 miles of Martian ground, reaching a peak altitude of nearly 80 feet before the rotor failure.
Although Ingenuity will never fly again, NASA engineers are already building its successors, including testing next-generation rotor blades at nearly the speed of sound in conditions mimicking those of interplanetary space. In particular, Ingenuity’s massive success inspired NASA to incorporate a pair of more advanced helicopters into its design for the troubled Mars Sample Return mission. During that mission, a helicopter could collect Mars rock samples that Perseverance is currently stashing away—although due to budget and timeline concerns, that mission’s future is in flux.
But NASA isn’t limiting itself to helicopters, nor to the Red Planet. It’s also hard at work building a quadcopter drone to sail above Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. The Dragonfly mission, currently scheduled to launch in mid-2028, will hop across Titan’s strangely Earth-like surface of water ice rock covered in hydrocarbon sand dunes, and lakes and rivers filled with methane and ethane.
And thanks to Ingenuity’s dozens of flights, those future aircraft will leave Earth informed by a much better understanding about how interplanetary aerial missions can work.
“Every single flight has given us a treasure trove of data,” Tzanetos said. “Ingenuity was based off of theories. We now have facts, and future aircraft designs are going to rely on all the data we collected.”