Skip to main content

NASA says goodbye to Mars helicopter Ingenuity after an incredible 72 flights

It’s a sad day for space fans, as the plucky little helicopter Ingenuity has finally come to the end of its mission on Mars. The helicopter will not be making anymore flights due to damage to one of its rotors that occurred during a recent landing, NASA said in an announcement on Thursday, January 25.

The mission was originally planned to make just five flights and to last 30 days, but has been successful beyond what anyone had imagined. The helicopter has made a total of 72 flights over the course of its three-year mission, which began when it was set down on the surface of Mars by the Perseverance rover. The rover arrived on Mars with the helicopter tucked up underneath its belly in February 2021, and Ingenuity sat on the surface for the first time in April 2021. It then made history by becoming the first rotorcraft to fly on another planet with its maiden flight.

First Video of NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter in Flight, Includes Takeoff and Landing (High-Res)

Throughout its three-year mission, the public has delighted in seeing video footage of the helicopter, including some that the helicopter took of its downward-facing view of the surface and other footage that Perseverance took of the helicopter in action.

The helicopter flew largely autonomously, as the communication delay between Earth and Mars of up to 20 minutes meant that direct control was impossible. Instead, engineers would plan out flights that the helicopter would then execute, navigating itself by using its downward-facing cameras to track its movements. It was this system that struggled recently, as the helicopter had problems navigating over a particularly featureless patch of terrain during its 71st flight earlier this month.

After its 72nd flight on Jan. 18, 2024, NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter captured this color image showing the shadow of one of its rotor blades, which was damaged during touchdown.
After its 72nd flight on January 18, 2024, NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter captured this color image showing the shadow of one of its rotor blades, which was damaged during touchdown. NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA lost contact with the helicopter following issues encountered when it tried to perform a brief hop for its 72nd flight, but it managed to regain communications by using the Perseverance rover to listen for its signal. However, images captured after this flight show the source of the problem: damage to one or more of its rotor blades, which was presumably sustained during the landing of either Flight 71 or Flight 72.

The helicopter remains upright on the surface of the planet and in communication with Earth, but the damage to the rotor blade means that it can no longer fly. In an emotional video, NASA team members paid tribute to Ingenuity and its successes:

#ThanksIngenuity – NASA’s Mars Helicopter Team Says Goodbye

The success of the mission was also hailed by NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “The historic journey of Ingenuity, the first aircraft on another planet, has come to end,” Nelson said. “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.”

Editors' Recommendations

Georgina Torbet
Georgina is the Digital Trends space writer, covering human space exploration, planetary science, and cosmology. She…
NASA has lost communication with the Ingenuity Mars helicopter
NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter is seen here in a close-up taken by Mastcam-Z, a pair of zoomable cameras aboard the Perseverance rover. This image was taken on April 5, the 45th Martian day, or sol, of the mission.

The Mars helicopter Ingenuity has had a remarkable lifespan and has proven to be a greater success than anyone imagined. Originally designed to perform just five flights over the surface of Mars, the helicopter has now performed more than 70. However, NASA has now announced that it has lost contact with the helicopter, though it's unclear how serious this problem is.

The helicopter was performing its 72nd flight, which was an adjustment and correction to a previous flight that was cut short. Flight 71 was intended to be a journey of 1,175 feet (358 meters), but when the helicopter made this flight earlier in the month, it traveled just a third of that. The problem was related to its downward-facing camera, which uses surface indications for autonomous navigation. The helicopter was traveling over a particularly featureless expanse of the surface, and the lack of landmarks appeared to cause a problem with its navigation, forcing the flight to end early.

Read more
NASA’s Mars helicopter forced to cut short latest flight
NASA's Ingenuity helicopter.

NASA’s Mars helicopter has now completed an impressive 71 flights on the red planet since its first hover there in April 2021.

While most of the flights have taken place without any difficulties, the latest one was cut short after Ingenuity’s navigation system found it difficult to cope with the “relatively featureless terrain,” which consisted of “sand ripples with few or no rocks,” according to a social media post by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is overseeing the mission.

Read more
See the passing of a day on Mars with the Curiosity rover
Curiosity rover

While many of us are on vacation this week between Christmas and New Year, the Curiosity rover on Mars is getting back to work after taking time off last month. In November, NASA's Mars missions paused for two weeks during an event called the Mars solar conjunction, when the sun is directly between Earth and Mars.

That means that any communications signals passing between the two planets would have to pass close to the harsh solar environment, where they would likely be degraded. To avoid any risk of garbled communications sending dangerous signals to the rovers, NASA stopped sending commands to both its Curiosity and Perseverance rovers until the solar conjunction passed.

Read more