On 30 July 2020, a United Launch Alliance Atlas V launch vehicle lifted off from SLC-41 at Cape Canaveral. Aboard this rocket was a payload with a special destination: Mars. After more than 29 weeks in space, on 18 February 2021, the rover named Perseverance touched down in a crater on the red planet. 

Nicknamed Percy, the rover was a modified version of its predecessor, Curiosity. When Perseverance landed on Jezero Crater, two working rovers operated on Mars for the first time since 2018 when Opportunity bit the red dust. The crater is named after a city in Bosnia and Herzegovina, whose name translates to “lake.” NASA chose Jezero specifically because it was an ancient lake, and Percy’s main mission is to probe Martian environments capable of supporting life in the past or present.

The rover Perseverance takes a selfie on Mars
Percy taking a selfie on Mars - photo by Percy/NASA
A graphic of the Jezero Crater's location on a section of Mars, placed in the center of a topographical map.
The location of Jezero Crater - graphic by US Geological Survey
The planet Mars with an arrow pointing to a spot in the upper center, which is the location of the Jezero Crater.
Arrow points to Jezero - photo by NASA/JPL

When Perseverance dismounted at the Octavia E. Butler Landing inside Jezero, it brought a hitchhiker that distinguished it from CuriosityOpportunitySpiritSojourner, and every other roving mission in human history. Inside the protective armor of the automobile-sized craft was a much smaller ship, named Ingenuity.

The vessel – internally brandished with the sobriquet Ginny – weighs just four pounds. Ingenuity might possess the greatest ratio of scientific achievement to weight of any mechanical object crafted by humanity.

Ginny is an autonomous helicopter. When Ingenuity took off for the first time, NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory dubbed the event their “Wright Brothers moment.” Before Ginny, every craft that moved around on an alien body had done so while firmly connected to the ground. Ingenuity is the first powered, controlled aircraft to function anywhere but Earth.

A prototype of a drone with two rotors, sitting on a desk, connected to wires.
Ingenuity prototype - NASA/JPL
A drone sits beneath a rover on Mars.
Percy gives birth to Ginny - NASA/JPL
The helicopter Ingenuity sits on the Martian soil.
Ingenuity on the ground - NASA/JPL

Beyond the technical achievement of flying a helicopter once it got to Mars, the path for Ingenuity’s success was beset with difficulties along the way.

Despite the obvious benefit of a reconnaissance aircraft for a rover roving in unknown terrain, a substantial cadre of NASA scientists opposed sending a helicopter on the mission. Despite weighing just four pounds, every ounce on a mission to another world matters. Further, they argued that diverting resources to an unproven technology might jeopardize the entire scientific mission of Perseverance.

Some reticence might have been warranted. Getting a drone to Mars might have been the easy part. NASA and JPL needed to design a helicopter to function on a planet that has almost no atmosphere. When helicopters rely on lift in atmospheric gases and Mars touts one just 0.6% as dense as that on Earth, the engineering task was massive. Complicating everything is the reality of interplanetary distance. Signals from Earth take at least five minutes to bridge the gap and can take up to 20. This delay makes any sort of remote control impossible. Ginny needed to be autonomous, with pre-programmed instructions beamed ahead of flights.

With a lot of tinkering, scientists believed they developed a workable model, then convinced the powers that be at NASA to send the craft to Mars. Even then, the idea was simply to test the viability of such a reconnaissance craft. The plan was for a handful of flights.

On 19 April 2021, Ingenuity took to the Martian skies for the first time.

Scientists hoped for 30 days of life from the copter, performing five 90-second flights and reaching heights of approximately 15 feet. Instead, Ingenuity proved to be one of the few concoctions that can earn the description “out of this world” both figuratively and literally. Mission specialists realized the tiny ship could not only continue past its designed five flights but could contribute to the efficacy of Perseverance

Ginny became a spy for the rover, flying over the rocky surface, scanning for possible paths.

A map of the Jezero Crater on Mars, with a white line and a yellow line, indicating the paths taken by Ingenuity and Perseverance.
Ginny's path in yellow; Percy's in white - NASA/JPL

Ingenuity was so good at flying on Mars that the team extended its mission until it stopped working.

Several times, conditions threatened to take the tiny copter offline. The solar panel that powers its batteries suffered during the Martian winter. Since scientists had not designed the craft to persist for long, mechanical and power breakdowns were legitimate threats. Several times, Ginny lost contact with Percy, as rough terrain blocked line-of-sight radio communication. Each time a bump occurred, however, Ginny emerged in working order.

Until January 2024.

For three years and 72 flights, Ingenuity beat the odds and kept beating in the thin Martian atmosphere. An extraordinary over-delivery on the initial plan. On 18 January 2024, researchers couldn’t contact Ginny. Two days later, they reestablished transmissions, but received the following image:

A photo of the shadow of a helicopter rotor with a broken tip on the red soil of Mars.
Ginny's artistic end-of-life selfie - NASA/JPL

The shadow above is one of Ginny’s rotors, and the tip is missing.

Somehow during the 72nd descent, the craft malfunctioned, ostensibly leading to a bit of bumpy landing. This unfortunate incident rendered Ingenuity inert. NASA made the tough call to retire her after two hours, eight minutes, and 48 seconds aloft. She traveled more than 10.5 miles across the crater.

In addition to valuable recon and a priceless proof of concept, Ingenuity produced some of the most striking footage ever.

An elevated photo of the Martian landscape, with ripples in sand and a mountain in the distance.
Martian sand ripples from Ingenuity - NASA/JPL
The protective landing gear of the rover Perseverance strewn on the ground on Mars.
Perseverance's landing debris - NASA/JPL

One of the greatest things about NASA is the agency’s ability to mix dead-serious science, history, and humor. The “Wright Brothers moment” was more than just a comparison. Under Ingenuity’s solar panel sat a piece of cloth from the Wright Flyer, the first craft to ever sustain powered flight. Neil Armstrong toted another slice to the Moon on the Eagle. NASA named the “landing strip” for Ginny’s first flight Wright Brothers Field. The “airport” even received a code – JRZO – named for the crater, while Ingenuity spawned an aircraft type designator. IGY INGENUITY is the first of, hopefully, many alien drones. To celebrate the helicopter, NASA pumped out a slew of memes.

Drone in the air, text saying, "Lookin' Fly"
When your bestie is also a robot

Perseverance must now persevere without its bestie on a desolate planet. The rover continues to rumble across the Martian surface, searching for signs of life. 

The legacy of Ingenuity will likely reverberate across the solar system. NASA plans to launch a mission to the largest moon of Saturn, Titan, equipped with a rotorcraft named Dragonfly. With luck and some engineering ingenuity, Dragonfly will be as successful as its trailblazing forebearer.

Rest in Martian peace, Ginny!

Further Reading and Exploration

Mars Helicopter – Official NASA Website

Ingenuity – Jet Propulsion Laboratory

The Mars Rovers – NASA Space Place

Mars 2020: Perseverance Rover – Official NASA Website

After Three Years on Mars, NASA’s Ingenuity Helicopter Mission Ends – NASA

Ingenuity Spots the Shadow of Its Damaged Rotor Blade – JPL

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