Ingenuity – Down, But Not Out

Ingenuity – Down, But Not Out

NASA’s intrepid Mars helicopter, Ingenuity, sent its last transmission back to Earth yesterday, but will continue collecting data for eventual retrieval in the future. In January, something happened at the end of Ingenuity’s 72nd flight that damaged its rotor blades and it will never fly again, but everything else is working. Communications are relayed through the Perseverance rover, however, and it is moving out of range so the data Ingenuity collects will simply be stored onboard until a new rover or perhaps even human beings arrive to collect it.

Ingenuity was launched along with the Mars Perseverance rover on July 30, 2020. They landed on February 18, 2021 and Ingenuity made its first flight on April 19, 2021.

The Mars atmosphere is less than one percent that of Earth and no one knew if a helicopter could fly there at all. A technology demonstration rather than a critical part of the mission, NASA hoped it might be able to make five flights over 30 days.

The Ingenuity Mars helicopter on the surface of Mars as seen by the Perseverance rover.  Credit: NASA

But Ingenuity proved to be an overachiever, completing the five flights and ready for more. NASA gave it a new assignment — a scout for the rover. Almost three years and 72 flights later, it reached the end of the sky-faring road on January 18, 2024. A selfie showed the extent of the damage to one of the helicopter blades, though not what caused it.

The damage to one of Ingenuity’s rotor blades is visible in this shadow against the Martian surface. Photo credit: NASA

NASA declared an end to the mission on January 25, but continued to communicate with Ingenuity until yesterday when Perseverance moved too far away.

Now it will serve as a stationary testbed at its final landing site at Valinor Hills collecting data. Every day it will test the performance of its solar arrays, batteries and electronic equipment, collect temperature data, and take a color photo of its surroundings. Up to 20 years worth of data can be stored in the helicopter’s memory until something — or someone — comes to collect it.

Engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) that built and operated Ingenuity met in mission control for a last time yesterday to receive a final transmission — a confirmation that the software command to continue collecting data was received and executed. It also held a farewell message with the names of people who worked on the mission, which they sent up to Perseverance so it could relay it to Ingenuity and back down to mission control.

Engineers working on NASA’s Ingenuity together monitored a transmission from the history-making helicopter in a JPL control room on April 16, 2024. NASA/JPL-Caltech

Josh Anderson, Ingenuity team lead at JPL said:

“It is almost unbelievable that after over 1,000 Martian days on the surface, 72 flights, and one rough landing, she still has something to give. And thanks to the dedication of this amazing team, not only did Ingenuity overachieve beyond our wildest dreams, but also it may teach us new lessons in the years to come.”

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