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Qualcomm expands its chipset monopoly to Mars

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Anyone who’s been following the ins and outs of Android for the last few years will remember the OnePlus One. The teasers and promotions were pretty obnoxious, but the phone itself was great when it launched in 2014. A big part of that was thanks to the Snapdragon 801, which made the OPO faster than any other phone in its price range. This powerful ARM chip popped up in a lot of less influential (and more expensive) devices that same year, and now it’s on Mars. The Snapdragon 801 is at the heart of NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter, which just made history as the first machine to take flight on another planet.

The Ingenuity helicopter rode to Mars attached to the belly of the Perseverance rover, which touched down in Jezero Crater earlier this year. The rover is the primary element of the mission—Ingenuity was added later as a technology demonstration. It has now demonstrated not only the ability to fly in the thin Martian atmosphere, but also that powerful terrestrial hardware like the Snapdragon 801 can operate in the harsh environment of Mars. The drone lifted off at 3:34 AM EDT, and remained in the air for less than a minute. It took a photo of its own shadow on the surface (below) before landing safely.

Perseverance is the most advanced robot ever sent to Mars, but it’s a fossil in terms of raw power. The CPU inside is essentially a 20-year-old PowerPC chip—it’s not very fast, but it’s been hardened against radiation, of which there is a great deal on Mars. It’s the same design used for Curiosity, which has been happily rolling around the red planet since 2012. Ingenuity doesn’t have that level of ruggedness, but it shows that off-the-shelf hardware does have a place in these missions. In the future, it may be possible to use multiple consumer chips in a voting scheme to compensate for environmental damage, and that could make our robotic explorers much more powerful. The Snapdragon 801, for instance, is an order of magnitude faster than Perseverance’s CPU.

With this first flight out of the way, NASA plans to tackle more daring flights in the coming weeks, sending the helicopter higher and farther. Ingenuity probably won’t be around to see how Perseverance gets along, though. The helicopter was designed for a short-term demo mission, and it most likely will not survive its first Martian winter.

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