The Mars Ingenuity helicopter ends its mission after 3 years

The little helicopter that could far exceeded what it had been expected to do.
By | Published: January 26, 2024

After three years filled with many firsts, NASA’s Ingenuity Helicopter has made its final flight. Ingenuity, though still upright on Mars and in communication with NASA, can no longer fly after it was damaged during a recent landing. 

“The historic journey of Ingenuity, the first aircraft on another planet, has come to end,” said NASA administrator Bill Nelson. “That remarkable helicopter flew higher and farther than we ever imagined and helped NASA do what we do best – make the impossible possible.”

The little helicopter that could completed 72 flights, which far exceeded expectations. Ingenuity was expected to fly only five times over 30 days, according to the NASA press briefing on Jan. 25 that announced the mission’s end.

First accomplishments 

Ingenuity began its mission April 3, 2021, attached to NASA’s Perseverance rover. Freed from the the craft’s belly, the four-pound rotorcraft survived its first frigid night on the Red Planet and tested its spinning blades. Ingenuity completed its first flight April 19, 2021, while Perseverance filmed the feat. That made history as Ingenuity became the “first aircraft to achieve powered, controlled flight on another planet.

The craft performed so well its mission was eventually extended and it completed 50 flights the next two years. In all, it flew for 128.8 minutes, covered 10.5 miles and reached 78.7 feet at its highest.

The fall

During the craft’s 71st flight, it had to make an emergency landing because of difficult terrain. The landscape is featureless with no identifying rocks and is hard to navigate. Teddy Tzanetos, project manager for Ingenuity at JPL, suspects the same thing happened during the 72nd and final flight. Communications were temporarily lost during that mission, and Tzanetos and his team suspect a lower rotor blade was damaged when it struck the Martian surface. 

This image of Mars was taken from the height of 33 feet (10 meters) by NASA's Ingenuity Mars helicopter during its sixth flight, on May 22, 2021. Credit: NASA
This image of Mars was taken from the height of 33 feet (10 meters) by NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter during its sixth flight, on May 22, 2021. Credit: NASA

What comes next?

Tzanetos said that while Ingenuity will not fly again, the next generation of Mars helicopters is in the works. They will follow in the footsteps of the craft and the wealth of knowledge it gave researchers.