NASA has announced the retirement of Ingenuity, the helicopter micro-probe carried to Mars aboard the Perseverance rover, after nearly three years and 72 successful flights. Ingenuity’s initial takeoff marked the first ever powered flight on another planet, and its service record wildly exceeded NASA’s expectations--the helicopter was only ever supposed to make five flights. It was retired because of rotor damage sustained upon landing after its final excursion.
A Flying Start
The Ingenuity project originated in the Mars 2020 program, which aimed to launch a rover of the same type as 2012’s Curiosity to the Red Planet and collect data in preparation for an eventual mission to return Martian rock samples to Earth in the 2030s. A helicopter was not initially part of Mars 2020’s mission; instead, it was a separate concept added to the program in 2018.
The design of Ingenuity, nicknamed “Ginny,” was that of a coaxial twin-rotor helicopter weighing less than two kilograms. It was powered by a solar panel atop its rotor assembly and was primarily made of carbon fiber to conserve weight. The small size and mass, combined with a powerful electric motor, allowed the probe to take off in the tenuous Martian atmosphere, with an average pressure of less than 1% of Earth’s. The only scientific equipment aboard Ingenuity was a pair of cameras, one for navigation and one for taking photos to send back to Earth.
Simulated flight tests took place in 2019, and the following year, the helicopter, now named Ingenuity, flew to Mars with the recently-named rover Perseverance, landing in 2021.
Over the years that followed, Ingenuity flew more than 17 kilometers over 72 flights, reaching a maximum altitude of 24 meters above the rusted sands of Jezero Crater. It took numerous aerial and grounded photos of the local terrain. In addition to making the first powered flight on Mars, Ingenuity was also the first spacecraft to be recorded by a microphone on another spacecraft, with Perseverance sending audio of the helicopter back to Earth. It was also featured in photos taken by the rover.
Ingenuity’s final flight took place on January 18, 2024. While most of the excursion was uneventful, the helicopter momentarily lost contact with Perseverance, which was feeding it control instructions sent from Earth. This disruption caused it to drop one meter to the ground, damaging at least one rotor blade upon impact and rendering it unable to fly again.
The Future of Martian Flight
Ingenuity was intended not as a scientific instrument platform like the various Mars rovers but as a technology demonstrator and a basis for future helicopter probes. The private spaceflight company AeroVironment announced the development of two Mars Sample Recovery Helicopters in 2022 to be sent aboard the NASA-ESA sample return mission in the 2030s; NASA itself is researching a Mars Science Helicopter that would carry scientific payloads on a future mission.
Image credits: NASA, JPL, ASU
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