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The NASA Mars helicopter’s work is not done, it turns out

NASA’s Mars helicopter, Ingenuity, has been grounded since January 18 after suffering damage to one of its rotors as it came in to land.

The team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which oversees the Ingenuity mission, celebrated the plucky helicopter for achieving way more flights on the red planet than anyone had expected — 72 in all — and becoming the first aircraft to achieve powered, controlled flight on another planet.

Ingenuity’s success helped engineers to learn more about how to fly aircraft on Mars and in other challenging environments, paving the way for work on more complex rotorcraft for future missions.

The Mars helicopter is now in its final resting place on a dune inside Mars’ Jezero Crater. But while most people have been thinking that it’s mission accomplished for the helicopter, it turns out that it’s actually still operating and in touch with its team at JPL.

Responding to a question during an ask-me-anything session on Reddit this week, a NASA official revealed that Ingenuity is in fact snapping images and beaming them back to Earth. While the pictures are mostly of martian sand due to the camera’s downward-facing position, the team is using the imagery to learn about geological processes on Mars.

As per NASA: “The team continues to run vehicle health checks while snapping images of the martian surface. Though we mostly see the sand below us with the color camera, martian scientists can learn about geological processes by having a series of images taken from one spot to see how dust, sand, and rock particles move in response to martian weather and wind.”

Fans of Ingenuity are sure to be delighted to learn that while it’s no longer able to take to the skies, the trusty device is still powered up and working away on the martian surface.

It’s not clear how for much longer Ingenuity will be able to operate. Much will depend on the time it takes for martian sand to cover its solar panels. When that happens, as it did it with NASA’s stationary InSight Mars lander in 2022, it will be well and truly game over for the Mars helicopter.

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Trevor Mogg
Contributing Editor
Not so many moons ago, Trevor moved from one tea-loving island nation that drives on the left (Britain) to another (Japan)…
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An artist's impression of the Ingenuity helicopter in flight over Mars. NASA/JPL-Caltech / NASA/JPL-Caltech

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NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter unlocked its rotor blades, allowing them to spin freely, on April 7, 2021, the 47th Martian day, or sol, of the mission.

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.

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