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NASA retires Ingenuity, the little helicopter that made history on Mars

An illustration of NASA's Ingenuity helicopter flying on Mars. In April 2021, Ingenuity became the first aircraft to complete a powered, controlled flight on another planet.
NASA/JPL-Caltech
An illustration of NASA's Ingenuity helicopter flying on Mars. In April 2021, Ingenuity became the first aircraft to complete a powered, controlled flight on another planet.

NASA is retiring Ingenuity, its mini Mars helicopter, a week after it was damaged during its 72nd flight. The spindly overachiever made history as the first aircraft to complete a powered, controlled flight on another planet.

"The little helicopter that could — and it kept saying 'I think I can, I think I can' — well, it's taken its last flight," NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a video announcement on Thursday.

At least one of Ingenuity's carbon-fiber rotor blades was damaged when the helicopter was coming down for landing during a test flight on Jan. 18, Nelson said. Around that time, NASA also lost contact with Ingenuity. Communications were restored the next day, and the cause of the blackout is still under investigation, according to the space agency. The agency is also investigating the possibility that the damage was caused by a blade striking the ground. Its carbon-fiber rotor blades have enabled Ingenuity to fly through the extremely thin and cold Martian atmosphere.

But that 40-foot-high trip last week ended up being the helicopter's last.

Since it arrived on the planet almost three years ago, Ingenuity has surpassed expectations.

"It flew farther and higher than we ever thought possible," Nelson said. "What started as a technology demonstration with plans for only up to five flights has now completed a remarkable 72 flights on Mars."

Ingenuity landed on Mars in February 2021. Its biggest accomplishment — a 21st century "Wright Brothers moment" for extraterrestrial flight, as NASA calls it — came two months later when, on April 19, 2021, the 4-pound rotorcraft (1.5 pounds on Mars) made the first powered, controlled flight on Mars.

Its work didn't stop there. Ingenuity has been an aerial scout for the Mars rover Perseverance, conducting reconnaissance for scientists to pave the way for safer human and drone exploration on Mars and other planets.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Emma Bowman