- NASA says its Mars helicopter, Ingenuity, broke beyond repair during a mysterious communication lapse.
- Imagery suggests that at least one of the helicopter’s blades was damaged during its final flight.
- Ingenuity soared past NASA’s wildest dreams by flying 72 times. It was a huge success.
NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter, the little drone that’s been flying around on the surface of Mars for three years, has finally ended its mission.
During its 72nd flight, the helicopter mysteriously lost communication with NASA. When NASA reestablished communication the following day, the agency received images from the drone that indicated one of the rotor blades on the aircraft was damaged.
NASA said during a press conference on Thursday that at least one of the blades likely collided with the Martian surface.
Because communication was lost during Ingenuity’s descent, the log of what happened isn’t available. In other words, we’ll never know for certain what happened, Teddy Tzanetos, Ingenuity project manager, said during the press conference.
However, the Ingenuity team said it plans to continue studying the imagery data to learn as much as it can.
When Ingenuity reached Mars in February 2021, tucked inside the belly of the Perseverance rover, NASA engineers weren’t even sure it would survive its first night, much less make it off the ground.
Two months later Ingenuity’s first flight, captured by Perseverance in the video below, made history. This 4-pound tissue-box-sized drone proved, for the first time, that aerial exploration was possible on another planet.
“We can now say that human beings have flown a rotorcraft on another planet,” MiMi Aung, Ingenuity project manager, told the helicopter team at NASA mission control as they received the first data from that flight. “We’ve been talking so long about our Wright brothers moment on Mars, and here it is.”
NASA engineers were thrilled that Ingenuity worked and optimistic that the rotorcraft might make it through its five scheduled flights, probably crashing on its fifth and most difficult flight, they said.
Instead, the helicopter survived to complete more than 70 flights over nearly three years.
“It was supposed to be for 30 days,” Tzanetos said during the press conference. “So emotionally, for the last 2.5 years we’ve been prepared for a sprint and then we had to transition to a marathon,” he said, later adding that it was always in the back of their minds that “Today could be the last day.”
Ingenuity constantly defied expectations, proving itself to be one of NASA’s most impressive engineering feats yet. It survived mid-flight errors and took on new missions, including surveying land ahead of Perseverance.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson called the helicopter’s demise “bittersweet.”