March 3, 2024

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NASA's Ingenuity Mars helicopter completes its mission

NASA's Ingenuity Mars helicopter completes its mission

Creativity, the little Mars helicopter that just can't do it anymore.

NASA officials announced Thursday that at least one rotor broke during the robotic flying machine's final flight last week. Ingenuity remains in contact with its companion, the Perseverance rover, which has been exploring a dry riverbed for signs of extinct Martian life.

Ingenuity will now be left behind.

“It's bittersweet to announce that Ingenuity, the little helicopter that can — and kept saying, 'I think I can, I think I can' — well, has now made its final flight on Mars,” Bill Nelson. NASA Administrator announced Video message posted on X.

Ingenuity arrived at Mars in the undercarriage of the Perseverance rover in February 2021. The helicopter was a late addition to the mission, a low-cost, high-risk, high-reward technology demonstration using many off-the-shelf components, providing important lessons for future mission designers during its 72 flights. Journey through the planet's thin atmosphere.

“They can count on what we have accomplished,” Ingenuity project manager Theodore Tzanitos said at a news conference Thursday evening. “They can point to the fact that a mobile phone processor from 2015 can survive the radiation environment on Mars for two and a half years. Commercial, off-the-shelf lithium-ion battery cells can survive for two and a half years, and these are huge wins for engineers at NASA agency.

On April 19, 2021, Ingenuity became the first plane or helicopter to take off on another planet, with the plane's rotors rotating 2,400 times per minute to generate enough lift in an atmosphere only one hundredth the density of Earth's. NASA officials described the flight as the “Wright Brothers' moment” for planetary exploration.

The plan was then to conduct a demonstration of the new technology: five flights in 30 days.

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Perseverance then had to leave Ingenuity behind and begin studying ancient sedimentary rocks along the rim of Jezero Crater, which once held a lake of water several billion years ago.

Ingenuity excelled on all five flights, and it worked so well that mission managers decided to bring the helicopter in to scout the terrain in front of the rover. Over the next thousand days, creativity continued to go up and down, up and down, up and down. It encountered some errors along the way, resulting in three emergency landings. It has survived dust storms and cold Martian winters, which the plane was not designed for. Engineers updated their software so Ingenuity could choose its own landing sites.

“It's almost an understatement to say it exceeded expectations,” said Lori Glaze, associate administrator for NASA's Science Directorate.

In an interview, Mimi Ong, who oversaw the helicopter project from the early out-of-control experiments on Earth to Ingenuity's first flights on Mars, said she felt “a little sad, but, I have to say, mostly very proud of the whole team.” She recalled how Ingenuity's first flight was delayed due to a software glitch. At the time, she and her colleagues were very careful to make sure the fix didn't cause more serious problems.

“Creativity could die any day,” she said. “Just before or after the first flight.”

The helicopter team had prepared for what they described as a 30-day sprint. “72 flights were not what we envisioned,” said Ms. Ong, who left NASA in mid-2021 to work on Project Kuiper, Amazon’s project to broadcast Internet from space.

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Instead the mission turned into an open marathon. Team members knew deep in their minds that every day that passed could be Ingenuity's last, Mr. Tzanitos said. But Chopper always seems to bounce back from any challenge.

Except for one non-essential sensor that failed, “the rest of the subsystems, from the solar panels to the battery, are noticeably outdated,” Tzantos said. “Our electronics, avionics and processor seem to be working fine.”

On January 18, during its 72nd flight, Ingenuity lost contact with the Perseverance rover during landing. Communications were restored the next day, but then a shadow appeared in a photo sent a few days later revealing that about a quarter of one of the rotor blades had broken off.

“There was the first moment of sadness, obviously, when I saw that image appear on the screen, giving certainty to what had happened,” Mr Tzanitos said. “But that was quickly replaced by happiness, pride and a feeling of celebration for what we had achieved.”

Mr. Tzanitos noted that Thursday evening, it will be 1,000 sols, also known as Sols, since Ingenuity was dropped on the surface of Mars by Perseverance.

“She chose a very opportune time to get to the end of the mission here,” he said.

Ingenuity was flying over terrain that Mr. Tzanitos described as “some of the most difficult terrain” — not because of the obstacles, but because it was very gentle, with few rocks or other features. The previous flight had ended in an emergency landing because the navigation system was having trouble tracking his location.

Flight 72 was intended to take 30 seconds up and down to make sure everything was okay, but again the gentle terrain caused problems. “Due to navigation challenges, the rotorcraft collided with the surface,” Tzantos said. “This could have led to a power outage, causing a loss of communications.”

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With at least part of one blade broken, the helicopter would not be able to generate enough lift, and the rotor would be unbalanced, meaning the helicopter would likely shake if it tried to take off again.

“There are some lessons for us in this,” said Havard Grebe, chief pilot at Ingenuity. “We now know that this type of terrain can be a trap for a system like this.”

Dr Grebe said a higher-resolution camera, capable of capturing more detail even in bland landscapes, would likely be useful.

The Ingenuity team will perform some final tests on Ingenuity's systems and download the remaining images and data into the helicopter's memory.

NASA engineers are investigating the cause of the communication loss and whether the rotor blade hit the ground when Ingenuity landed.

Future Mars helicopters are in the planning stages, including a pair that could accompany a mission to return rock and soil samples to Earth that Perseverance has been collecting. But that Mars sample mission, which has faced technological and budget challenges, is being reconsidered, and the helicopters may be shot down.

“Creativity was based on theories,” Mr. Tzanitos said. “We now have the facts, and future aircraft designs will be based on all the data we have collected through ingenuity.”