by Alex Martin, Executive Director
January 20, 2024
This story was originally published under the title "NASA JPL loses communication with the Ingenuity helicopter on Mars" and has been updated to reflect the final status of the mission.
UPDATE #2 JANUARY 26, 2024 @ 9:24am
NASA JPL announced at 2:38pm on January 25th that the Ingenuity helicopter sustained visible damages during its 72nd flight, which led to a failure in communications. Part of Ingenuity's rotors cracked off, as evidenced by photographs the helicopter and Perseverance took of the helicopter and its shadow. NASA JPL confirms that Ingenuity is now decommissioned, officially ending the mission of the first interplanetary helicopter.
UPDATE #1 JANUARY 21, 2024 @ 5:03pm
NASA JPL announced at 8:40pm the night of January 20th that communications had been reestablished with Ingenuity. Teams are now working to determine the cause of the loss of signal that occurred during Flight 72.
ORIGINAL POST JANUARY 20, 2024
On July 30th, 2020, NASA launched the Mars 2020 mission, sending two more robotic travelers to the Red Planet: the Perseverance rover, and the Ingenuity helicopter. Watch our video of the launch below:
The pair landed in Mars' Jezero Crater on February 18, 2021, just 12 days shy of seven months after launch. Planetariums and theatres around the country played the livestream of the event on their screens, as NASA had placed video cameras on the descent stages to document the precision landing with a seven-minute delay (the time it took light to travel between Mars and Earth at their February 2021 separation distance).
Watch the three-minute video below to see Perseverance enter Mars' atmosphere and then touch down on the surface:
Interestingly, the rover design and the landing method called the "Sky Crane" were both updated iterations of the Curiosity rover, which landed on Mars back in August 2012, and is still exploring Gale Crater to this day. Where Curiosity's wheels have started peeling and snapping, engineers redesigned Perseverance's wheels to be thicker, have more internal support, and better robustness to trudge across sharp, rocky terrain and temperatures that Perseverance has measured to be around -55 C (-67 F).
When Perseverance landed, it released the Ingenuity helicopter from its underside, a craft with a wingspan of 6 feet and weighing only 4 pounds. As Perseverance trudged along, Ingenuity became the star of the duo: the first helicopter on Mars, a solar-powered helicopter, at that, flew for the first time, its blades rotating at 5,000rpm to generate enough lift in Mars' weak atmosphere, which is only 1% the pressure of Earth's.
For comparison, the average helicopter on Earth, carrying cargo and humans, need only spin its blades at 300-500rpm to generate enough lift for flight.
Ingenuity flew for the first time on April 19, 2021 (Earth time), two months after arrival.
It flew again three days later, on April 22nd.
And again on April 25th.
Ingenuity had a conservative estimate of reaching only five flights. It's mission was to experiment with the hardware and technology. All we wanted to know at first was "Can this work?" After a few flights, the question became, "How long can it stay airborne?" Soon after than, "How far can it fly?" And even "How high can it fly?"
Ingenuity made flight after flight, surpassing expectations and putting on a show as a few pixels zipping around as seen from Perseverance's cameras:
But on January 18, 2024, during its 72nd flight, Ingenuity abruptly lost communication with Perseverance. The helicopter's controllers back on Earth had been using Perseverance to relay commands and data to and from Ingenuity, so to lose signal during flight meant that there was no direct way to contact Ingenuity until Perseverance comes back into line-of-sight with the helicopter.
As of January 20th, two days after the loss of communication, we don't yet know the condition of Ingenuity, if it was damaged, if it is sitting in a position where it can be flown again, if it's tipped over, if its solar arrays are damaged, and more. It will take Perseverance putting our eyes back on Ingenuity to answer any of these questions, and once Perseverance is close enough to get a full inspection, we may have to perform some remote sciencing to address whatever issues are ailing the helicopter.
Whatever has happened, Ingenuity performed 72 flights and proved that we have developed technology to fly on another planet entirely. While it's a far cry from efficiently mobilizing humans, flight on Mars will enable quicker reconnaissance and local surface mapping for future explorers of the Red Planet.
Read NASA JPL's Flight 72 Update: Flight 72 Status Update - NASA Mars