In an astounding achievement, a helicopter has flown on another planet. On Monday NASA’s Ingenuity drone made its first flight, rising to a height of about three meters (10 feet) and hovering for about 30 seconds.
— NASA JPL (@NASAJPL) April 19, 2021
The video of the flight is astounding, especially when you consider that flying a drone on Mars is exponentially harder than doing it on Earth. First off, there’s no human to steer—Mars is currently 16 minutes away at the speed of light. Even more notably, while Mars gravity is only one-third of that on Earth, it has a thin atmosphere (equivalent to 100,000 feet on earth) that makes it much harder to achieve lift.
The helicopter is powered by a Qualcomm processor that’s basically a Snapdragon 801 smartphone processor (2014’s HTC One used a Snapdragon 801), as a part of a platform designed for drones. Most spacecraft are powered by processors hardened for the rigors of spaceflight. As a result, they’re based on very old designs and run very old software. Which is why, according to the New York Times, the tiny Ingenuity drone is “packed with more computing power than all previous interplanetary spacecraft combined,” all in the service of autonomously taking off, steering, and landing on Mars.