After three years of soaring through the ultra-thin skies of Mars, NASA's autonomous Ingenuity helicopter has finally been grounded for good.
While power still flows through the 4-pound (1.8 kilograms) helicopter, recent images revealed that at least one of its rotor blades sustained irreparable damage after its last flight — Ingenuity's 72nd flight over the Red Planet — rendering it unable to fly again, NASA announced in a statement on Thursday (Jan. 25).
"The historic journey of Ingenuity, the first aircraft on another planet, has come to end," NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in the statement. "That remarkable helicopter flew higher and farther than we ever imagined."
Ingenuity landed in Mars' Jezero Crater alongside NASA's Perseverance rover in February 2021. Initially designed as a technology demonstration not meant to fly more than five times, the little helicopter swiftly shattered expectations. Ingenuity not only proved that flight is possible in Mars' ultra-thin atmosphere (Mars' atmospheric volume is about 1% that of Earth's), but also flew much higher and farther than engineers anticipated.
Ingenuity was soon repurposed as an aerial scout for Perseverance, scoping out the nearby terrain of Jezero and looking for possible targets to study. The helicopter ultimately completed 72 flights over the next three years, clocking roughly 129 minutes of flight time in the skies of Mars, according to Live Science's sister site Space.com.
Ingenuity's final flight ended dramatically on Jan. 18, when it suddenly lost communication with Perseverance and with NASA ground controllers during a planned descent from about 40 feet (12 meters) over Mars. The helicopter was only 3 feet (1 m) off the ground when it abruptly lost contact, forcing an emergency landing.
Though NASA restored communications with the helicopter the next day, subsequent images revealed that at least one of Ingenuity's rotor blades was damaged beyond repair. The little copter's long-extended mission was finally over.
Ingenuity's legacy as the first aircraft on an alien planet has already inspired multiple follow-up missions, including the planned deployment of two similar helicopters that may one day help retrieve rock samples gathered by Perseverance on Mars — potentially flying those samples to an awaiting rocket that will ultimately return them to Earth.
"History's first Mars helicopter will leave behind an indelible mark on the future of space exploration," Teddy Tzanetos, Ingenuity's project manager at NASA, concluded in the statement. "[Ingenuity] will inspire fleets of aircraft on Mars — and other worlds — for decades to come."
Sign up for the Live Science daily newsletter now
Get the world’s most fascinating discoveries delivered straight to your inbox.
Brandon is the space/physics editor at Live Science. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Reader's Digest, CBS.com, the Richard Dawkins Foundation website and other outlets. He holds a bachelor's degree in creative writing from the University of Arizona, with minors in journalism and media arts. He enjoys writing most about space, geoscience and the mysteries of the universe.