When we talk about space missions, we often imagine that they have superior technologies to those that surround us on a daily basis, however, this is not always the case. The NASA helicopter that landed on Mars with the Perseverance rover on February 14, although it is hard to believe, has a Qualcomm Snapdragon processor launched seven years ago.
This is Ingenuity, an aircraft that, after a journey of about 480 million km, will attempt to fly in the atmosphere of the red planet. The NASA helicopter will have to complete a total of five fully autonomous flights starting next April 8. The most curious thing of all, technologically speaking, is that inside it inhabits a Snapdragon 801 processor launched in 2014 and present in many smartphones of those years.
You may wonder how it is possible that the device responsible for demonstrating that you can fly on Mars -without any human intervention- has such an “old” component. The answer lies in the mission’s beginnings and the platform on which it rests. Perseverance was announced by NASA in December 2012 and, like any such venture, requires years of work and development to become a reality.
In addition to “searching for signs of ancient microbial life, characterizing the planet’s geology and climate, collecting carefully selected rock and sediment samples,” with the Perseverance rover, NASA included the Ingenuity helicopter in 2015 to perform “a proof of concept” that flying on the red planet is possible. To do so, it based the aircraft on the Snapdragon Flight platform, which is powered by a 2.26 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor.
While NASA’s helicopter has this processor dating back to 2014, it is much more powerful than the PowerPC 750 variant like the one in the 1998 iMac G3 that inhabits the heart of the Perseverance rover. The leap in power has to do, among other things, with the Ingenuity being fully autonomous. That is, it must measure the conditions on the red planet in real time to stay charged, protect itself from the temperature and check the condition of its propellers and engines.
The first of the flights will be on April 8 and, according to NASA, it will climb to a height of 16 feet (about 4.87 meters) and will last only 90 seconds. Although it will be brief, it will be a feat “from another planet”, since it will become the first aircraft to fly outside the Earth. During its brief ride, it will also capture video in 4K thanks to its 13-megapixel camera and stay connected to the Perseverance rover via a 250kbps wireless connection.
The Snapdragon 801 processor was popular among flagships at the time. Owners of a OnePlus One, Samsung Galaxy S5, LG G3 and HTC One M8 had in their pockets – or still have – the same processor power as the NASA helicopter designed to fly on Mars.