Goodbye Ingenuity, Perhaps We’ll Meet Again Someday

As seen from the Perseverance Rover as it drives away, NASA’s Martian helicopter Ingenuity sits alone amidst windswept sand dunes, its mission complete.

Ingenuity can no longer fly after sustaining damage to its rotors following what NASA describes as an “anomalous landing” on decent during its 72nd flight on January 18, 2024. In short, its signal with the Perseverance was briefly lost, causing it to lose control. The team has said that it believes the relatively featureless terrain in the region of its final flight, which the navigation system was not designed for, was likely the root cause of the problem.

Unable to take to the sky, Ingenuity has been left in its final landing spot as Perseverance continues its mission on the Martian surface. The Ingenuity team has nicknamed the spot where the helicopter completed its final flight “Valinor Hills” after the fictional location in J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy novels.

The photo above is a stitch of six images that were captured from about 1,475 feet (450 meters) away by the rover’s Mastcam-Z imager. The above image is an enhanced-color view that NASA says exaggerates subtle color differences in the scene to show more detail.

A 100% crop from Perseverance’s photo, focused on Ingenuity.

Ingenuity first successfully flew above Mars in April 2021 and for the next three years it would make repeated flights above the surface, proving that NASA was able to take powered, controlled flights on another planet. After nearly crashing the following May due to what was described as a camera glitch, Ingenuity recovered and would make dozens of additional flights and provide photos from that unique perspective that were sent back to Earth.

The little camera drone vastly exceeded NASA’s expectations, as it was only designed to perform five experimental test flights over the course of a month. Instead, it flew 72 times over the course of three years and covered distances 14 times farther than initially planned. It flew for more than two total hours over that period.

The Ingenuity Mars Helicopter was built by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which manages the project for NASA Headquarters. It is supported by NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley and NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, provided significant flight performance analysis and technical assistance during Ingenuity’s development. AeroVironment Inc., Qualcomm, and SolAero also provided design assistance and major vehicle components. Lockheed Martin Space designed and manufactured the Mars Helicopter Delivery System.

Now, Ingenuity sits and waits at its final touchdown location. The hope is that someday humans will set foot on Mars and retrieve it so that it may return to Earth — perhaps to the Smithsonian where it can be appreciated by millions.

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