So Long And Thanks For All The Flights: Ingenuity Permanently Grounded After 72 Flights

Just a few hours ago, NASA dropped some devastating news: Ingenuity will fly no more. Three years after dropping from the belly of the Perseverance rover and after 72 flights through the thin Martian atmosphere, the little helicopter that could now can’t, after having sustained damage to one or more of its rotors during its final landing.

Shadow of Ingenuity‘s rotor blade, showing damage suffered during a rough landing.

NASA’s terminal diagnosis of Ingenuity comes from a photo from one of the helicopter’s cameras, which shows a chunk missing from the tip of one of its rotors, likely caused by a rough landing after transiting a flat, sandy area that may have confused the aircraft’s navigational cameras.

While this is anything but good news, it’s not at all unexpected and in a way long overdue. Ingenuity was designed for a primary mission of just five flights, which it accomplished all the way back in May of 2021. There was heavy speculation at the time that Ingenuity might not even do that; we can recall one of the team members suggesting the odds were that Ingenuity’s tenure as the first controlled powered flying machine on another world would end as twisted wreckage in the newest, smallest crater on Mars.

But happily, Ingenuity proved the oddsmakers — and possibly those wishing to temper expectations — spectacularly wrong. In fact, by the fourth flight, it was clear that Ingenuity was in it for the long haul, enough so that NASA redefined its mission to “operational demonstration” and gave it another 30 sols of flight time. This gave the team the flight time needed to prove the helicopter’s worth as a scout for Perseverance and not just a distracting sideshow from the primary mission of searching for signs of ancient life on Mars.

Ingenuity‘s success was hard-fought; the plucky little unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) had more than its share of close calls over the last three years. Designed to communicate to Earth mainly by relay through Perseverance, the helicopter lost contact with controllers on Earth quite a few times, with each blackout inducing a sense of “Is this finally it?” The helicopter had also been designed for only a few flights, all of which would occur during the relatively balmy Martian spring. This meant that controllers had to reprogram it to survive the harsh winter months when the computer would freeze solid and reset itself. They also had to figure out how to clean dust off the tiny solar panels, deal with imaging problems that scrambled the guidance computer, and probably most importantly, give the aircraft the ability to choose its own landing spots.

Sadly, it’s unlikely that we’ll see Ingenuity in its final landing zone anytime soon. Perseverance is currently about a kilometer away, too far to image the helicopter with the rover’s cameras. Although there’s no word yet if the rover will try to make the trip over, and doing so may not align with the rover’s primary mission, it seems to us that such a trip could be of immense value. From close up, Perseverance‘s MASTCAM would be able to provide data about the extent of damage and what caused it, which could be extremely valuable and might just inform the design of the space helicopters that are sure to follow in Ingenuity‘s footsteps.

But beyond the engineering data it would glean, getting the team back together for one last selfie would be an amazing tribute to both Ingenuity and the team that pushed its technology to the limit, and a bit beyond. Ingenuity pushed back so many engineering and scientific boundaries in its longer-than-expected but still far too brief life that it seems a little harsh to just leave it there sitting on the floor of Jezero Crater to die. A final visit so we can all pay our respects and celebrate the achievements of an incredible feat of human ingenuity seems like the least we can do.

Photo credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS

43 thoughts on “So Long And Thanks For All The Flights: Ingenuity Permanently Grounded After 72 Flights

    1. Then again, if it only a chip missing from one blade, it still might be able to make it back to Momma and ride on her back.
      I say give it a whirl (pun intended), what’s there to lose?

      1. and the best part: Ahh! your gonna make me cry, you know… and the editor like : boring! moving on. :)Anyway

        Dear people of the NASA Ingenuity Project,

        As we marvel at the breathtaking achievements of the Ingenuity helicopter on the Martian surface, we are compelled to express our deepest gratitude to each and every one of you who dedicated your time, expertise, and passion to make this groundbreaking mission a reality.

        Your unwavering commitment to pushing the boundaries of human exploration has not only propelled our understanding of the Red Planet but has also inspired countless individuals around the globe. The successful flight of Ingenuity stands as a testament to your ingenuity, innovation, and the spirit of collaboration that defines the very essence of human achievement.

        In the vast expanse of space, your dedication has proven that there are no limits to what humanity can accomplish when we come together with a shared purpose. Your tireless efforts have expanded the horizons of possibility, and we are grateful for the impact your work has on the future of space exploration.

        Thank you for your brilliance, perseverance, and the indomitable spirit that propels us toward new frontiers. The journey to Mars has been enriched by your contributions, and we eagerly anticipate the discoveries that lie ahead.

        With sincere gratitude,
        Tony M { powered by ChatGPT}

      1. They can get annoying, even in the future….
        The computer started calling Captain Kirk “Dear” after it was serviced on a female run planet.

        And the classic…

        Scotty – Transporter Room
        (Starship Excelsior’s Male Computer) – Thank you
        Scotty – Up yer shaft

    1. Why people give names to their cars? I suppose because the car is an object used daily. Because you care about it, wash it, fix it, change parts. Also you take it on rides. And because it has to be unique, ‘cos it’s yours, therefore special, so you give it a name. Also unique machines are receiving names (Big Bertha for a giant press, Big Goose for a seaplane, Ma Deuce for a machine gun, and so on).
      So you give a name to an object because you have a connection to it. And when this connection is broken (usually when the object brokes down beyond repair or when you leave it – you move away from it) you feel sadness, regret. So when the mars copter went down after performing longer than expected, it is normal to thank him, because he is no longer just an object, he was your partner on a journey that no one made before, with ups and downs, descovering unexpected things.
      And before you diss me, remember Jason, the hero that went after the golden fleece. He kept Argos, the boat, in his backyard for the same reason.

  1. I wish we could’ve seen them try using Ingenuity to blow dust off one of the old rovers’ solar panels (assuming they are close at all since it’s an entire planet). It would’ve been janky as hell but amazing if they managed to get a rover running again.

    1. Well Spirit and Opportunity both got physically stuck in one place before their solar panels gave out. And their systems have no doubt been further damaged by not having working heaters for years at this point. So I’m not sure cleaning the panels would actually accomplish much.

      But the landing sites are spread out across Mars. The landers and the helicopter aren’t even remotely close to each other. So it’s a moot point.

  2. I guess it can not fly anymore due to imbalanced rotors. Couldn’t you use the drill tip of the Preseverence robotic arm and hold it against the rotors to abrade the rotors very slowly to balance them again?

    1. fun idea. I wonder if it’d still fly in the thin atmosphere with reduced blades.

      They’d need a different bit, like carving or routing bit where the sides do the cutting. Probably need 1 robotic arm to hold on and reduce vibration. Finally they’d want to avoid getting that conductive carbon dust on Perseverance.

    2. Keeping the thing grounded just because of the shadow of a slightly damaged wingtip seems a bit silly. Especially without any sort of assessment of what that damage actually means.

      I assume it has some onboard G-sensors. A 12-year old can come up with the idea of powering the rotors slowly up to 90% of takeoff speed and do some vibration measurement.

      You could even just point a camera at the horizon and measure shakiness of the video.

      What useful sort of missions are left if it’s stationary?

      1. I thought the same thing…. That said still 72 flights when mission was for hopeful 5. Awesome, ever though sad to see mission end.

        Now that we know heli flight is doable, my thoughts went to why not design the next heli with an eye on ‘repair’ capability. First always pairing them with every new rover that goes up. The rover could store say extra blades and parts (or assembly) for expected problem areas. When in need, the rover could run over (if possible) and fix the heli with special robotic arms that are on board. Arms with much more dexterity than the current type of arm. Food for thought and maybe even a hacking project or two back here on our home planet.

        1. Including two rotorcraft would be simpler. No need for assemblies to be repairable, no fasteners, no tools, no robotic arms to program for unforeseen damages, etc, and no need to guess at what parts might fail and what dead weight needs to be stored in repair parts. Just two identical, fully tested, independent, ready to go flying machines.

          1. Sure it would be simpler to have a duplicate… But what is the fun in that? Being creative to ‘fix’ things via robotics seems like a ‘long’ term goal for things far far away…. Where a human will not be available to pick up with his own two hands, analysis the problem, and fix…. To me this is the same as 3D printing parts in space so we don’t have to ship parts up from mother Earth. Need a wrench, make a wrench… On site. then fix it on site. Need Oxygen. make it from materials on hand. More you can do there, makes the mission cheaper here — in the long run.

      2. I think you’re being too pessimistic about NASA’s thought process. You don’t know what kind of assessments they made in the 5 days between regaining contact and making the press release. Anyway Ingenuity’s inclination sensor is dead, there’s only an IMU. And they’re already pushing the limits of blade RPM vs vibration without the chipped blade. It’s quite a risky maneuver you’re proposing.

      3. On the other hand what information could a 73rd flight provide that the prior 72 didn’t? People underestimate the usefulness of a working camera on the surface of Mars, even a stationary one. Spirit and Opportunity both sent back interesting data about Mar’s geologic activity and weather after they were declared stationary research equipment. Keeping Ingenuity alive for possibly months longer by not trying to fly it again can make a lot of sense.

          1. From JPL’s website: “With flight operations now concluded, the Ingenuity team will perform final tests on helicopter systems and download the remaining imagery and data in Ingenuity’s onboard memory.”

            I admit using the camera specifically was speculation on my part but the broader point that Ingenuity can be more useful if we leave it intact than go for broke on another flight stands.

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