Amidst the expansive and frigid Martian terrain, an isolated figure stands as a symbol of human innovation and unwavering dedication to exploration. Behold the Ingenuity helicopter by NASA, preserved in its ultimate resting place on the surface of the Red Planet. The 4-pound rotorcraft was grounded forever after a series of groundbreaking flights that pushed the boundaries of what was thought possible in another world. It inspired scientists, engineers, and space fans to dream about a new future of interplanetary travel.
When Ingenuity first landed in February 2021, it was supposed to be a simple technology demonstration to prove flight was possible in the thin Mars atmosphere. But over the next two years, Ingenuity became a long-term scout for the car-sized Perseverance rover, helping planetary scientists preview terrain and guiding the wheeled robot to sites of interest in Jezero Crater. It also helped pave the way for future, more advanced flying machines capable of taking people to Mars and perhaps to other planets in search of life.
But on January 18, Ingenuity suffered a setback during what was supposed to be just a short vertical flight called a hop. When the chopper rose about 40 feet (12 meters) in the air, hovered for 4.5 seconds, and began to descend, communications abruptly cut off. The team figured something went wrong with the helicopter’s rotor blades, which generate most of the lift needed to make the chopper soar. A few days later, images beamed back to Earth showed that at least one of the blades had been irreparably damaged during the landing.
Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which designed Ingenuity, said it was unlikely the helicopter would fly again. “Going through a blade strike is typically the end of a rotorcraft,” project manager Teddy Tzanetos said in a news conference. “We have no idea if this was the case with Ingenuity.”
After a brief silence, communication with Ingenuity was restored the following day, but satellite imagery revealed that at least one of the rotor blades had irreparable damage. NASA has concluded that the helicopter can no longer fly and will remain at its final resting place within Jezero Crater’s vast, sandy Neretva Vallis region.
Nasa administrator Bill Nelson praised Ingenuity for its accomplishments in its brief time on Mars. The rotary-wing vehicle, carried to the Red Planet strapped to the underside of the Perseverance rover, far exceeded the expectations of those who designed it at JPL. “Like the Wright brothers, Ingenuity paved the way for future flight in our Solar System,” Nelson said in a video message on social media.
Although the Perseverance rover is too far away to capture high-quality images of Ingenuity, the vehicle can perform final tests and download data from the helicopter’s systems. The rover will also cache some of its sample tubes in a depot that will be available for Ingenuity to retrieve when necessary.