On February 4, NASA's Mars rover Perseverance captured an image of its now-defunct companion, the Ingenuity helicopter. The two probes spent nearly three Earth years probing the Red Planet for signs of ancient life and conducting aerial missions to Mars. The damaged Ingenuity helicopter was missing for just over two weeks.
The Ingenuity Martian helicopter while it was still operational Photo by NASA
The Perseverance rover captured the image at 1:05 p.m. GST, which shows the small helicopter standing alone on an arid Martian sand dune in the Neretva Vallis. The image was beamed back to Earth and processed by visual design student Simeon Schmauss, who assembled NASA's six raw images into a panorama, writes popsci.com.
The latest image of the Ingenuity helicopter, taken by NASA's Perseverance rover Photo NASA
On January 18, Ingenuity's rotors were damaged when it landed on what NASA called a “bland” patch of Martian landscape. The helicopter typically uses rocks and other distinctive features on the Red Planet to navigate, but the drone didn't have many visual cues during its 72nd and final flight.
NASA confirmed that the rotorcraft damaged at least one of its propeller blades when it ended its flight. Although it landed vertically and continued to communicate with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), its flying days were officially over. JPL is still analyzing the damage.
On January 31, NASA held a live tribute to Ingenuity. “We couldn't be prouder or happier with how our little baby is doing,” Ingenuity Project Manager Teddy Tzanetos said during the event. “It was the mission of life for all of us. And I wanted to thank all the people here who spent their weekends here, late nights. All the engineers, the aerodynamic researchers, the technicians who made this aircraft by hand.”
Ingenuity touched down on Mars for the first time on February 18, 2021. In April, it became the first powered aircraft to take off from the surface of another planet. Ingenuity was originally supposed to conduct five test flights with Perseverance over 30 days. However, this 1.5 kg helicopter continued to operate. It flew 14 times further than planned and had a total flight time of two hours. Ingenuity hovered above the rover, acting as a scout, while Perseverance walked around on the Martian sand. Its mission lasted about 33 times longer than NASA expected.
Before Ingenuity's demise, the dynamic duo explored the Jezero crater on Mars. This site contains evidence of ancient bodies of water that may have harbored life billions of years ago. Ingenuity contributed to the mission by capturing aerial images of Mars that indicated places for Perseverance to explore next.
During the Jan. 31 live broadcast, NASA Mars Exploration Program Deputy Director Tiffany Morgan said Ingenuity will have a lasting legacy for future space missions and demonstrated how helicopters can be used on missions to other planets.
Thanks in part to Ingenuity's success, NASA has proposed using two helicopters as part of a planned mission to return samples from Mars. These small aircraft could help lift containers of rock samples that the rover has placed along the planet's surface. The spacecraft dedicated to this mission would be launched in 2027, and the ignition module in 2028, with samples to be returned to Earth as early as 2033.
Until then, the Perseverance rover must fend for itself.