NASA's Ingenuity helicopter has taken its last flight on Mars

"The historic journey of Ingenuity, the first aircraft on another planet, has come to end," says NASA Administrator Bill Nelson.

After nearly three years of exploring Mars, Ingenuity apparently suffered damage during its last flight, bringing its amazing mission to an end.

Just one week ago, on January 18, 2024, NASA's Ingenuity helicopter performed its 72nd flight on Mars. According to the mission team, it was just a "pop up flight" where the little rotorcraft lifted off, flew a total of 12 metres straight up, and then returned to the ground in the same location.

The purpose was just to test out the helicopter's systems, to ensure everything was fine after it made an unexpected early landing during its previous flight, about a week and a half earlier. According to Teddy Tzanetos, the Ingenuity project manager at NASA JPL, the emergency landing during flight 71 was due to the relatively featureless terrain Ingenuity was flying over at that time, which made it very difficult to find landmarks to navigate by.

Ingenuity - August 2 2023 - NASA/JPL-Caltech

Ingenuity is seen here as it was on August 2, 2023, in an enhanced-colour image captured by the Perseverance rover's Mastcam-Z instrument. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS

The pop-up maneuver only took about 30 seconds, but according to NASA, as Ingenuity was slowly descending, it lost contact with the rover when it was roughly 1 metre above the ground.

There's no indication now as to why Ingenuity lost contact or exactly what happened right afterwards. However, when the team reestablished contact with Ingenuity the next day and downloaded the images it captured during the flight, the pictures revealed damage to the end of at least one of the rotor blades.

Ingenuity Blade struck ground - annotated - NASA

This image from Ingenuity's colour camera shows a divot in the ground underneath it, while the shadow of its rotorblade reveals a torn, damaged end. Flecks of what may be the dark carbon fibre material of the blades appear to be in the divot and nearby. Credits: Image courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech, annotations added by Scott Sutherland

While Ingenuity appears to be upright and is capable of taking images and communicating with Perseverance, with this damage, it is no longer capable of flight. Therefore, NASA has officially ended its mission.

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"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. 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."

Watch below: The JPL Ingenuity team says goodbye to their little robot explorer

"It's humbling Ingenuity not only carries onboard a swatch from the original Wright Flyer, but also this helicopter followed in its footsteps and proved flight is possible on another world," Tzanetos said in a NASA statement. "The Mars helicopter would have never flown once, much less 72 times, if it were not for the passion and dedication of the Ingenuity and Perseverance teams. History's first Mars helicopter will leave behind an indelible mark on the future of space exploration and will inspire fleets of aircraft on Mars — and other worlds — for decades to come."

An Incredible Achievement

For what was only supposed to be a 30-day technology demonstration, taking up to six short flights just to prove that rotor flight was even capable in Mars' extremely thin atmosphere, Ingenuity far surpassed everyone's expectations.

This little robot helicopter not only went beyond its original plan, it performed so well — flying higher, farther, and faster — that it was officially added to Perseverance's science mission. In effect, it became a scout for the rover, with its imagery providing the team here on Earth with a way to maximize Perseverance's potential.

Perseverance - Ingenuity - Paths - Locations - Jan 25 2024 - NASA

NASA's location map for Perseverance and Ingenuity show how far both robots have travelled since landing in February 2021. The location and coordinates of Ingenuity's 72nd and final flight are indicated. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

As of January 25, 2024, Perseverance and Ingenuity have been on Mars for 1,043 sols, and it has been roughly 1,000 sols since Ingenuity's first flight. A 'sol' is a Martian day, which is slightly longer than an Earth day at 24 hours, 39 minutes, and 35 seconds.

Since it first took to the air on Mars, on April 30, 2021, Ingenuity completed 72 flights, travelling for 128.8 flying minutes, covering a total of 17 kilometres, and reaching altitudes as high as 24.0 metres. Its fastest flight speed was around 36 kilometres per hour (or about 10 metres per second).

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"At NASA JPL, innovation is at the heart of what we do," Laurie Leshin, the director of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory said on Thursday. "Ingenuity is an exemplar of the way we push the boundaries of what’s possible every day. I'm incredibly proud of our team behind this historic technological achievement and eager to see what they'll invent next."