February 21, 2024

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NASA Ingenuity helicopter mission on Mars ends after three years

NASA Ingenuity helicopter mission on Mars ends after three years

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After completing 72 historic missions on Mars over three years, NASA's Ingenuity helicopter mission has come to an end.

Originally designed as an experiment, Ingenuity became the first aircraft to operate and fly on another world, taking off on April 19, 2021.

Images and data returned to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, showed that one or more of the helicopter's carbon-fiber rotor blades were damaged during landing during its final flight this month. The team decided that the helicopter She can no longer flyAccording to the space agency.

Ingenuity, which traveled to Mars as Perseverance's trusted companion, sits upright on the Red Planet's surface, and mission controllers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory were able to maintain communications with the rotorcraft.

NASA/JPL-Caltech

Perseverance captured an image of Ingenuity on August 2, 2023, the day before the helicopter's 54th flight.

NASA's mission team expected the helicopter to make only five test flights within 30 days. After acing its five expected flights, Ingenuity has graduated from its experimental role to serve as aerial reconnaissance for the Perseverance rover. The helicopter flew over areas of scientific interest to capture images and help the mission team identify the next Perseverance targets for detailed analysis. The helicopter made its final flight on January 18.

Together, the rover and helicopter have spent the past few years exploring Jezero Crater, the site of an ancient lake and river delta on Mars. Scientists hope that the samples collected by the Perseverance rover, which will be returned to Earth through future missions, will be able to determine whether life exists on the Red Planet or not.

“The historic flight of Ingenuity, the first aircraft on another planet, has come to an end,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement. “This incredible helicopter has flown higher and farther than we ever imagined and has helped NASA do what we do best – make the impossible possible. Through missions like Ingenuity, NASA is paving the way for future voyages into our solar system and smarter, safer human exploration to Mars and beyond.

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Aside from achieving the Wright Brothers' first moment on another planet, it marked creativity Many landmarks. It flew 14 times farther and 33 times longer than planned, clocking more than two hours of flight time.

“At NASA JPL, innovation is at the core of what we do,” Lori Lishin, director of JPL, said in a statement. “Ingenuity is an example of how we push the boundaries of what is possible every day. I am extremely proud of our team behind this historic technological achievement and look forward to seeing what they invent next.”

As the first space helicopter, the Ingenuity has been compared to the Wright Flyer, the first powered heavier-than-air aircraft to successfully fly on Earth in 1903. The Wright Flyer flew four times on its first day of flight before it was blown up and crashed. The wind broke, Leshin said. This feat is still considered one of humanity's greatest achievements, and now Ingenuity joins the Wright Flyer as an aircraft that made history and demonstrated new capabilities.

“Humble creativity is not just about carrying it on board Sample of the original Wright Flyer“But this helicopter followed in its footsteps and proved that flight is possible on another world,” Teddy Tzanitos, Ingenuity project manager at JPL, said in a statement.

Ingenuity was scheduled to make a short vertical flight, known as a jump, on January 18 to help the mission team determine its precise location. The helicopter experienced an emergency landing on its previous flight, Flight 71.

During Flight 72, Ingenuity rose about 40 feet (12 meters) into the air, hovered for 4.5 seconds and began descending at 3.3 feet per second (1 meter per second).

But when the helicopter was 3 feet (1 meter) above the surface of Mars, the mission team lost contact with Ingenuity because it stopped sending data to the rover. The helicopter relies on Perseverance to serve as its communications relay because Ingenuity has no way to independently exchange data with Earth.

Communications with Ingenuity were restored the next day, allowing the mission team to analyze flight data and see images that revealed at least one damaged rotor blade.

The team is still investigating the cause of the communications interruption and determining the direction of the helicopter during its landing. Nelson said it was possible that one of the blades hit the ground during landing.

The team estimates that 25% of the end of the blade is missing, Tzanitos said.

He said Ingenuity will not attempt any additional flights to test the capability of its helicopters because the helicopters must be impeccably balanced to be able to fly. Most of the lift comes from the last 25% to 35% of the rotor system, and Ingenuity has lost a major portion of its thrust capacity.

Whether or not a blade collision occurred and caused a loss of communication or a power outage caused the rotor to hit, the team will never know because the data is not saved, he said.

Currently, Perseverance is located several hundred meters to the southeast of Ingenuity and is heading west on a sample collection mission. The rover may be able to get within 200 to 300 meters of the helicopter and will attempt to photograph it.

Tzanitos added that the ingenuity does not carry any scientific instruments, so there is no point in treating it as a fixed mission on the ground after it has become unable to fly.

Once the rover moves west of the crater rim, the rover will lose contact with Ingenuity, which is expected to happen within weeks or months.

Now, the team will run some final tests with Ingenuity and download the rest of its data and images.

“It's stronger than any of us could have imagined, and usually the end is getting hit by a helicopter blade, and Ingenuity was able to do that and survive after that,” Tzanitos said. “We couldn't be prouder of our little tough pioneer.”

The end of the mission was “bittersweet,” Nelson said, but the helicopter far exceeded expectations. The mission team overcame numerous challenges to keep Ingenuity flying for longer than its expected lifespan.

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On the ground, helicopters can't fly above about 25,000 feet, Leshin said. Ingenuity had the enormous task of flying through the thin atmosphere of Mars.

“On Mars, the atmosphere is so thin that it is equivalent to what Earth’s atmosphere is at 80,000 or 90,000 feet,” Leshin said.

Over the course of its mission, Ingenuity underwent numerous software upgrades to help it fly over treacherous terrain, and clean itself up afterward. Sand Storms, He survived the harsh Martian winterIt made three emergency landings, had a malfunctioning sensor and carried out operations from 48 different locations. The helicopter experienced “the endless amount of curveballs that Mars always throws you if you want to try to operate a spacecraft at a very long distance,” Tzanitos said.

The Ingenuity mission launched in the spring, when conditions are warmer and clearer on Mars. But as the Martian winter approached in June 2022 and the mission exceeded its initial goals, Ingenuity did not have enough energy to keep itself warm during the freezing nights. As a result, the helicopter's flight computer would regularly freeze and reset, causing power outages several times.

NASA/JPL-Caltech

Ingenuity captured a stunning view of sand ripples during its 70th flight on December 22, 2023.

All the data collected during the long duration of the Ingenuity mission will help inform future rotorcraft designs for exploration of Mars and other worlds.

Tzantos said no one should be surprised when the first astronauts land on Mars and planes fly overhead in the Martian sky to capture this moment.

“The Mars helicopter would not have flown once, let alone 72 times, had it not been for the passion and dedication of the creativity and perseverance teams,” Tzanitos said. “History’s first Martian helicopter will leave behind an indelible mark on the future of space exploration and inspire fleets of aircraft on Mars – and other worlds – for decades to come.”