NASA Ingenuity Helicopter Mission Ends After Three Years

29th Jan 2024
NASA Ingenuity Helicopter Mission Ends After Three Years

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter, which exceeded its expected number of flights and achieved historic milestones, recently completed its mission on the Red Planet. Although the helicopter is still in contact with ground controllers and remains upright, images of its 18th January flight show that one or more of its rotor blades suffered damage while landing, rendering it incapable of performing further flights. 

Initially intended to conduct five experimental test flights over a period of 30 days, the first-ever aircraft on another planet remained operational on Martian soil for nearly three years. Ingenuity significantly surpassed its intended performance by conducting 72 flights, flying over 14 times the expected distance, and completed more than two hours of flight time. 

The First Controlled Flight

The Ingenuity helicopter reached Mars on 18th February 2021, by being attached to the underside of NASA’s Perseverance rover. It accomplished its first controlled flight on 19th April, thus marking the first powered flight on the Martian surface. Following this, the helicopter completed four more flights before transitioning to a new role as an operations demonstration. It then served as an aerial scout for the Perseverance team, aiding them in their research. In 2023, the Ingenuity helicopter passed two more flight tests, which helped the team learn more about its aerodynamic capabilities. 

On 18th January, the Ingenuity team planned a short vertical flight to locate the helicopter after its emergency landing on its previous flight. The data from the flight showed that the helicopter reached a maximum altitude of 12 meters and hovered for 4.5 seconds before descending at a velocity of 1 meter per second. However, the aircraft lost contact with the rover at 1 meter. 

Communications were established the next day, and NASA JPL received more information regarding the flight. Several days later, the team received images showing damage to the rotor blade. The reason for the communications dropout and the helicopter’s orientation during touchdown are still under investigation. 

Ingenuity’s Triumph on Mars

Over a prolonged mission that lasted nearly a thousand Martian days, i.e., over 33 times longer than its initial plan of 30 days, Ingenuity received upgrades enabling it to choose landing locations autonomously in challenging terrain. The helicopter also self-cleaned after dust storms brought about three emergency landings, handled a malfunctioning sensor, survived the cold Martian winter, and operated from 48 landing fields.

Ingenuity, which was meant to function during spring, faced issues during the most frigid period of winter since it could not power its heaters throughout the night. That led to its flight computer freezing and rebooting. These malfunctions required the team to adjust Ingenuity’s winter operations to keep it flying.  

With operations now concluded, the Ingenuity team will carry out final testing on the helicopter’s systems and retrieve the remaining data stored in its onboard memory. As of now, the Perseverance rover is situated too far to capture images of Ingenuity.

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