Something has gone wrong with NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter on the surface of Mars. Although the US space agency has not made any public announcements yet, a source told Ars that the plucky flying vehicle had an accident on its last flight and broke one of its blades. It will not fly anymore. (Shortly after this article was published, NASA confirmed the end of Ingenuity‘s mission).
When it launched to Mars more than three years ago, the small Ingenuity helicopter was an experimental mission, a challenge to NASA engineers to see if they could devise and build a vehicle that could make a powered flight on another world.
This was especially difficulty on Mars, which has a very thin atmosphere, with a pressure of less than 1 percent that of Earth’s. The solution they landed on was a very light 4-lb helicopter with four blades. It was hoped that Ingenuity would make a handful of flights and provide NASA with some valuable testing data.
But it turns out that Ingenuity had other ideas. Since its deployment from the Perseverance rover in April 2021, the helicopter has flown a staggering 72 flights. It has spent more than two hours—128.3 minutes, to be precise—flying through the thin Martian air. Over that time, it flew 11 miles, or 17 km, performing invaluable scouting and scientific investigations. It has been a huge win for NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, one of the greatest spaceflight stories of this decade.
Getting on in Martian years
The vehicle has been showing signs of aging recently, however. And that’s not surprising. The fragile little flying machine has been exposed to the harsh Martian atmosphere for more than two and a half years, including bruising radiation, dust storms, and wide swings in temperature from very, very cold to sort of warm.
One week ago, during a simple hover test flight, NASA lost contact with Ingenuity for several hours. This is when it apparently broke one of its four blades. Later, mission operators restored communications by asking the Perseverance rover to perform long-duration listening sessions for Ingenuity’s signal.
Before that flight, on the helicopter’s 71st flight in early January, the helicopter was supposed to traverse a long distance of nearly 1,200 feet (358 meters), reaching an altitude of 40 feet (12 meters) and spending nearly 125 seconds airborne. NASA had sought to reposition the helicopter for future flights to survey new areas of the Martian surface. However, during that flight, Ingenuity made an unplanned early landing.
Now, the ingenious Ingenuity helicopter will fly no more. But just as the 1903 Wright Flyer is remembered for its first sustained, powered flight on Earth, Ingenuity will be long remembered for its contributions as humans sought to fly on worlds beyond our own.