Goodbye Ingenuity, Humanity’s First Flying Vehicle On Another Planet

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter has taken its final flight across the dusty plains of Jezero Crater. The first flying vehicle on another world, Ingenuity spent almost 1,000 days on the Red Planet carrying out test flights and helping its rover companion Perseverance navigate the Martian terrain, 33 times longer than NASA had initially planned. It was designed to perform five flights. In the end, it flew 72 times, faster and higher than even the goals of the mission team.

“The historic journey of Ingenuity, the first aircraft on another planet, has come to an end,” confirmed NASA Administrator Bill Nelson in a statement. “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.” 

On January 18, during its 72nd flight to establish its position, Ingenuity hovered at 12 meters (40 feet) over the ground for a handful of seconds before descending. And then disaster struck. At about 3 meters of altitude, Ingenuity lost contact with the rover. Once communications were re-established and images arrived, it became clear that this had been the last flight for the helicopter. One of its rotor blades was damaged, ending any future flights. The exact cause of the damage is yet to be established.

Ingenuity’s shadow on its 25th flight, as captured by its own navigation camera on April 8, 2022.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The mission is a shining legacy for the people involved in planning, constructing, and navigating the helicopter once it was on Mars. Beyond autonomous landing, Ingenuity was pushed to its very limits, flight after flight, performing three emergency landings, cleaning itself after dust storms, and surviving the Martian winter. These last two are the number one killers of robots on Mars

“At NASA JPL, innovation is at the heart of what we do,” Laurie Leshin, director at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said. “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.”

Ingenuity flew for over two hours in total covering over 17 kilometers (11 miles). It assisted Perseverance by scouting the terrain ahead of the rover for interesting rocks and outcrops. The highest height it reached was 24 meters (79 feet). In its original mission, Ingenuity was expected to fly at a height of 3–5 meters (10–16 feet) for a maximum of 90 seconds per flight.

The Ingenuity team will perform final tests on the helicopter systems and download all the data and images from the onboard computer. Perseverance is too far away to take images of Ingenuity, so with little fanfare Ingenuity will be switched off. But it made history by proving controlled flight on another world was possible, paving the way for the next generation of flying vehicles on Mars.  

“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,” said Ingenuity’s project manager, Teddy Tzanetos. “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.”

Its name couldn’t have been better chosen; Ingenuity is truly a testament to the extraordinary things humans can do when we choose to.

Leave a Comment