NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter Ends Its Mission

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Ingenuity, the little Mars helicopter that could, can’t anymore.

At least one rotor broke during the robotic flying machine’s most recent flight last week, NASA officials announced on Thursday. Ingenuity remains in contact with its companion, the Perseverance rover, which has been exploring a dried-up riverbed for signs of extinct Martian life.

Ingenuity will now be left behind.

“It is bittersweet that I must announce that Ingenuity, the little helicopter that could — and it kept saying, ‘I think I can, I think I can’ — well, it has now taken its last flight on Mars,” Bill Nelson, the NASA administrator, announced in a video message posted on X.

Ingenuity arrived on Mars in the undercarriage of the Perseverance rover in February 2021. The helicopter was a late addition to the mission, a low-cost, high-risk, high-reward technology demonstration using many off-the-shelf components, providing important lessons for future mission designers during its 72 flights through the planet’s thin atmosphere.

“They can rely on what we’ve accomplished,” Theodore Tzanetos, the Ingenuity project manager, said in a news conference on Thursday evening. “They can point to the fact that a cellphone processor from 2015 can survive the radiation environment on Mars for two and a half years. Lithium-ion battery cells that are commercial, off the shelf, can survive for two and a half years, Those are massive victories for engineers around NASA.”

On April 19, 2021, Ingenuity became the first plane or helicopter to take off on another planet, the aircraft’s rotors spinning 2,400 times a minute to generate sufficient lift in an atmosphere that is only one one-hundredth as dense as Earth’s. NASA officials called the flight a “Wright brothers moment” for planetary exploration.

The plan then was to conduct a demonstration of the novel technology: five flights in 30 days.

Perseverance was then to leave Ingenuity behind and begin studying ancient sedimentary rocks along the rim of Jezero crater, which held a lake of water several billion years ago.

Ingenuity aced the five flights, and it worked so well that mission managers decided to bring the helicopter along to scout the terrain ahead of the rover. Over the next thousand days, Ingenuity continued to go up and down, up and down, up and down. It experienced glitches along the way, making three emergency landings. It survived dust storms and the cold Martian winter, which the aircraft was not designed for. Engineers upgraded its software so that Ingenuity could choose its own landing sites.

“It’s almost an understatement to say that it has surpassed expectations,” said Lori Glaze, NASA’s associate administrator for the science directorate.

In an interview, MiMi Aung, who shepherded the helicopter project from early out-of-control experiments on Earth through Ingenuity’s first flights on Mars, said she felt “A little sad, but, I must say, mostly super proud of the whole team.” She recalled how Ingenuity’s first flight was delayed by a software glitch. Back then, she and her colleagues took meticulous care to ensure that a fix did not cause more serious problems.

“Ingenuity could die any day,” she said. “Before or right after the first flight.”

The helicopter team had prepared for what they described as a 30-day sprint. “Seventy-two flights was not in our imagination,” said Ms. Aung, who left NASA in mid-2021 to work on Project Kuiper, Amazon’s effort to beam internet from space.

The mission instead turned into an open-ended marathon. Mr. Tzanetos said that in the back of their minds, team members knew that each passing day could be the last day for Ingenuity. But the helicopter seemed to always bounce back from any challenge.

Other than one nonessential sensor that had failed, “The rest of the subsystems, from the solar panels to the battery, have been aging remarkably well,” Mr. Tzanetos said. “Our electronics, avionics, processor all seem to be doing just fine.”

On Jan. 18, during its 72nd flight, Ingenuity fell out of touch with Perseverance while descending. Communications were re-established the next day, but then a shadow in a photo sent back a few days later revealed that about one-quarter of one of the rotor blades had broken off.

“There was the initial moment, obviously, of sadness seeing that photo come down and pop onscreen, which gives a certainty of what occurred,” Mr. Tzanetos said. “But that’s very quickly replaced with happiness and pride and a feeling of celebration for what we pulled off.”

Mr. Tzanetos noted that on Thursday evening, it would be 1,000 Martian days, known also as sols, since Ingenuity had been dropped onto the surface of Mars by Perseverance.

“She picked a very fitting time to come to the end of the mission here,” he said.

Ingenuity had been flying over terrain that Mr. Tzanetos described as “some of the most challenging” — not because of obstacles but because it was so bland, with few rocks or other features. The previous flight had ended with an emergency landing because the navigation system was having trouble tracking its position.

The 72nd flight was intended as a 30-second up-and-down to check that everything was working, but again the bland terrain caused problems. “Because of the navigation challenges, we had a rotor strike with the surface,” Mr. Tzanetos said. “That would have resulted in a power brownout, which caused the communications loss.”

With at least part of one blade broken off, the helicopter would not be able to generate enough lift, and the rotor would be unbalanced, meaning that the helicopter would be likely to shake itself apart if it tried to take off again.

“There are some lessons in that for us,” said Havard Grip, the chief pilot for Ingenuity. “We now know that kind of terrain can be a trap for a system like this.”

Dr. Grip said that a higher-resolution camera, able to pick out more details in even a bland landscape, would likely have helped.

The Ingenuity team will conduct a few final tests on Ingenuity’s systems and download images and data remaining in the helicopter’s memory.

NASA engineers are investigating what caused the dropout in communication and whether the rotor blade hit the ground when Ingenuity landed.

Future Mars helicopters are in the planning stages, including a couple that could accompany a mission to bring back to Earth rock and soil samples that Perseverance has been collecting. But that Mars sample mission, which has encountered technological and budgetary challenges, is being reconsidered, and the helicopters may be dropped.

“Ingenuity was based off of theories,” Mr. Tzanetos said. “We now have facts, and future aircraft designs are going to rely on all the data we’ve collected from ingenuity.”



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