On January 25, 2024, NASA’s Ingenuity mission officially concluded. The small, autonomous helicopter performed 72 flights on Mars, the first time an aircraft has flown on another planet. This mission far exceeded the 5 planned demonstration flights and captivated the world, following the journey of the intrepid little helicopter that could as it soared to new heights on the Red Planet.
Originally designed as a technology demonstration to perform up to 5 experimental test flights over 30 days, the first aircraft on another world operated from the Martian surface for almost three years, performed 72 flights, and flew more than 14 times farther than planned while logging more than two hours of total flight time – a record-setting achievement for a first-of-its-kind mission.
Ingenuity landed on Mars February 18, 2021 alongside the Perseverance rover, part of NASA’s Mars 2020 effort to continue to characterize the Red Planet and prepare for future human explorers. The aircraft first lifted off the Martian surface on April 19, proving that powered, controlled flight on Mars was possible. After successfully completing another four flights, it embarked on a new mission as an operations demonstration, serving as an aerial scout for Perseverance scientists and rover drivers – able to move across the landscape and identify targets of interest for teams on the ground. In 2023, alongside several operational flights, the helicopter executed two successful flight tests that further expanded the team’s knowledge of its aerodynamic limits.
Over an extended mission that lasted for almost 1,000 Martian sols, more than 33 times longer than originally planned, Ingenuity was upgraded with the ability to autonomously choose landing sites in treacherous terrain, dealt with a dead inclinometer sensor, cleaned itself after dust storms, operated from 48 different “airfields”, performed three emergency landings, and survived a frigid Martian winter – an astounding list of feats for a technological demonstration. The mission also carried a unique memento from Earth, a piece of the original Wright Flyer which made the first powered flight in 1903.
After executing an emergency landing on its previous flight, flight 71, Ingenuity’s team planned for the helicopter to make a short vertical flight on January 18 to determine its location and reorient the team on the ground. Data shows that, as planned, the helicopter achieved a maximum altitude of 40 feet (12 meters) and hovered for 4.5 seconds before starting its descent at a velocity of 3.3 feet per second (1 meter per second).
However, about 3 feet above the surface, Ingenuity lost contact with the rover, which serves as a communications relay for the rotorcraft. The following day, communications were reestablished and more information about the flight was relayed to ground controllers at NASA JPL. Imagery revealing damage to the rotor blade arrived several days later. The cause of the communications dropout and the helicopter’s orientation at time of touchdown are still being investigated. The choice, however, was made to not continue flights of the helicopter – effectively ending the mission.
Speaking after the choice to end the mission, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said: “The historic journey of Ingenuity, the first aircraft on another planet, has come to end. 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.”
Ingenuity’s pioneering development work pushed boundaries for what was considered possible on another world, and has reshaped the way many have thought about exploration of the Solar System. Mars Sample Return, NASA’s next large mission to the Red Planet, will potentially deploy a pair of “Ingenuity-Class” helicopters during the mission to retrieve samples from the surface, should the Perseverance rover not be able to deliver its cached samples. Further afield, the Dragonfly mission is planning to deploy a considerably larger rotorcraft as the primary spacecraft on Saturn’s moon, Titan – further expanding our knowledge of flight in a variety of non-terrestrial regimes. For now, however, Ingenuity can finally rest – her extensive mission now complete. There she will stay, until one day when human explorers might bring her home.
Edited by Beverly Casillas