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NASA's Mars helicopter retires after almost 3 years on the planet


Mars just got a bit quieter now that the whirring blades of NASA's Ingenuity Mars Helicopter have fallen silent. The tiny craft was about the size of a tissue box, with four spindly legs and a set of blades that generated a booming rumble. Well, after dozens of flights over nearly three years, NASA administrator Bill Nelson had some sad news.


BILL NELSON: It is bittersweet that I must announce that Ingenuity, the little helicopter that could - and it kept saying, I think I can, I think I can - well, it has now taken its last flight on Mars.

DETROW: Nelson said the reason for the retirement was a damaged rotor blade. The chopper landed on the red planet in February 2021, stuck to the belly of NASA's Perseverance rover. A few months later, it lifted off for its first flight. The elevation was modest, just 10 feet off the dusty surface, but by chopping its way through the thin Martian atmosphere, Ingenuity became the first aircraft to make a powered, controlled flight on another planet.

TEDDY TZANETOS: It was a simple, humble flight, but it meant the world to all of us - because we'd done it. We had accomplished our mission. We've checked the box, and from that point on, everything was sprinkles on top.

DETROW: Project manager Teddy Tzanetos said Ingenuity had the computing power of a nearly decade-old cellphone. It was only meant to take five flights, but the chopper kept on going. Ingenuity completed 72 flights, climbed as high as 79 feet and soared a total of 11 miles. In fact, it proved reliable enough that it took on a new mission - scouting the path ahead for its sibling on the red planet, the Perseverance rover. And it scouted a path for future Mars missions, too.

TZANETOS: The purpose is for future generations here to run with it and be able to scout, be able to do science, be able to carry important payloads and ultimately help the first astronauts that get to Mars.

DETROW: Tzanetos says that while he and his team will miss Ingenuity, their work is far from over.

TZANETOS: We have an acronym that we've been using throughout all these years and all these flights called WNDY - We're Not Dead Yet. And Ingenuity proved to us, OK, we're going to get to the end of mission here, but we're still not dead yet. And she's still alive and healthy. She'll never be able to fly again, but we'll get all the data we can. And she's done a remarkable job.

DETROW: So farewell, Ingenuity. Mission well done.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Christopher Intagliata
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Linah Mohammad
Prior to joining NPR in 2022, Mohammad was a producer on The Washington Post's daily flagship podcast Post Reports, where her work was recognized by multiple awards. She was honored with a Peabody award for her work on an episode on the life of George Floyd.