NASA helicopter’s mission ends after three years on Mars

Ingenuity, NASA’s tiny, overachieving Mars rotocopter, has officially ended its historic mission after three years of loyal, extended service. Despite initial plans to only conduct five-or-so test flights over roughly 30 days back in 2021, the four-pound, 19-inch-tall drone kept on trucking for another three years. Ingenuity ultimately spent over two hours buzzing through Red Planet’s thin, CO2-laden atmosphere during its 72 total flights, eventually traversing a whopping distance of roughly 11 miles.

On January 25, however, NASA confirmed its rotocopter damaged at least one blade while completing a flight on January 18. Although upright and still in communication with ground control, Ingenuity’s days of aerial exploration are definitely behind it.

Dubbed “the little helicopter that could” by NASA director Bill Nelson in a prerecorded message posted yesterday, Ingenuity “flew higher and farther than we ever imagined.”

“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,” he continued.

The helicopter touched down alongside the Perseverance rover way back on February 18, 2021, but continued setting new records as recently as last month. On December 20, 2023, Ingenuity sped along at nearly 22.5 mph for 135 seconds, covering about 2,315 feet in the process. Another successful flight ensued on December 22, but Ingenuity’s 71st mission unfortunately ended in an emergency landing. A planned vertical takeoff to confirm its location on January 18 allowed Ingenuity to ascend 40 feet into the air for 4.5 seconds before starting a slow descent to the Martian surface.

At about three feet from landing, however, the rotocopter lost contact with Perseverance, which is (among many other things) responsible for relaying Ingenuity’s data back to Earth. NASA reestablished a link the following day, but later identified significant rotor blade damage.