An illustration depicts the Mars helicopter Ingenuity on the Red Planet. Image courtesy of NASA
Dec. 9 (UPI) -- Tears most likely will flow at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., when the extremely successful Mars helicopter Ingenuity sends its last transmission and goes quiet on the Red Planet, according to those who have observed similar closures.
While the end of any space mission can be emotional simply because of a sudden change in routines and departure of colleagues, Ingenuity is unique, as it has opened a new type of robotic exploration and exceeded all expectations, said Christopher Hamilton, associate professor of planetary sciences at University of Arizona.
Ingenuity's team at NASA notched more success this past weekend with its 17th flight in the Red Planet's Jezero Crater, when it flew through some hills that briefly interrupted radio communication. But the tiny, 4-pound helicopter apparently came through unscathed, NASA said.
Ingenuity was designed to fly for 30 days to demonstrate that such a craft could navigate in the thin Martian atmosphere. But its mission has surpassed 7 1/2 months, witnessed a change of seasons on Mars, survived a near-total blackout of communications during a solar conjunction and performed vital scouting for the Perseverance rover.
Both the rover and the helicopter now are focused on finding interesting rocks for the rover to drill in a hunt for ancient signs of life.
"When the day comes that Ingenuity makes its final flight on Mars, there will be a mixture of emotions -- sadness that such an exceptional spacecraft has reached the end of its journey, but also triumph in that Ingenuity opened a new paradigm in Mars exploration," Hamilton said in an interview.
Hamilton has paid close attention to Ingenuity because he is leading an effort at the University of Arizona to study how rovers and aircraft, or multiple robotic explorers, could roam other planets in the future.
Funded with a $3.1 million grant from NASA, it's known as the Rover-Aerial Vehicle Exploration Network or RAVEN, and the plan is to send drones on exploration missions "across a vast lava field to test a next-generation Mars exploration concept," according to the university's Lunar & Planetary Laboratory.
"Ingenuity's achievements cannot be overstated, and it will be remembered as one of the great pioneering vessels of all time," Hamilton said. "One day, Ingenuity will make its last flight on the Red Planet, but it will not be the last aircraft to fly on Mars -- it's just the beginning."
Ingenuity's original mission envisioned short demonstration flights in a small region of the Jezero Crater, but subsequent scouting flights provided hard evidence that aircraft could fly greater distances, Hamilton said. Flight 9 on July 5, the longest at 2,051 feet, was the length of almost seven football fields.
Space missions bring together large groups of engineers, scientists and technicians who work under pressure for years. The end of such teamwork can also be emotional, said Ray Arvidson professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. He has been involved in every Mars mission since Viking landed there in 1976.
"Tears are not unusual at the end of such a mission, but I believe most of the emotion comes from a sense of accomplishment -- of satisfaction with a job well done," Arvidson said in an interview. "But you'll also miss the team. With the rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, we kind of grew up together, over two decades."
Arvidson added with a laugh, "We grew old and became gray together."
NASA has very little idea of how long the helicopter will last, Teddy Tzanetos, the Ingenuity team lead, said in an interview from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Eventually, engineers expect something will crack or break due to extreme temperature fluctuations on the Red Planet -- but they can't predict when.
In the meantime, NASA leadership has acknowledged that extending the mission adds to the original Ingenuity budget of $80 million but has stated that any increase would be minimal compared to what NASA is learning.
Previous missions lasted much longer than NASA planned -- notably the Opportunity rover, which had a budget and design for just 90 days of exploration in 2004. It didn't quit until 2019, almost 15 years later.
"Showing up to work each day to plan our next flight, you know, that's our new normal," Tzanetos said. "I'm sure, when that last flight occurs, whenever that happens, we will all miss it. But there will be a massive celebration of all the accomplishments."
Tzanetos also helps lead NASA's design research for a potential new Martian aircraft, known only as Mars Science Helicopter or Mars Heli. That aircraft could have twin rotors like Ingenuity or even six rotors.
Ingenuity's legacy has helped inform research on such future Mars aircraft, Hamilton said, adding that Mars drones in the future could have rotors and wings to extend their flights.
"Ingenuity changed planetary exploration just by flying the first time in April, but its additional accomplishments have pushed the technology even further," Hamilton said.
"It has demonstrated autonomous landings in new places -- a sort of marching forward and landing and exploring, which means the rate of future exploration will be radically different."
NASA's Perseverance Mars rover, using its Mastcam-Z camera system, captured this view of the Martian sunset on November 9, 2021, the 257th Martian day, or sol, of the mission. Martian sunsets typically stand out for their distinctive blue color as fine dust in the atmosphere permits blue light to penetrate the atmosphere more efficiently than colors with longer wavelengths. But this sunset looks different: Less dust in the atmosphere resulted in a more muted color than average. The color has been calibrated and white-balanced to remove camera artifacts. Photo courtesy of NASA | License Photo