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Mars helicopter bound for the Red Planet takes to the air for the first time – TechCrunch

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The Mars 2020 mission is on track for launch next year, and nesting inside the high-tech new rover heading that direction is a high-tech helicopter designed to fly in the planet’s nearly non-existent atmosphere. The actual aircraft that will fly on the Martian surface just took its first flight and its engineers are over the moon.

“The next time we fly, we fly on Mars,” said MiMi Aung, who manages the project at JPL, in a news release. An engineering model that was very close to final has over an hour of time in the air, but these two brief test flights were the first and last time the tiny craft will take flight until it does so on the distant planet (not counting its “flight” during launch).

“Watching our helicopter go through its paces in the chamber, I couldn’t help but think about the historic vehicles that have been in there in the past,” she continued. “The chamber hosted missions from the Ranger Moon probes to the Voyagers to Cassini, and every Mars rover ever flown. To see our helicopter in there reminded me we are on our way to making a little chunk of space history as well.”

Artist’s impression of how the helicopter will look when it’s flying on Mars

A helicopter flying on Mars is much like a helicopter flying on Earth, except of course for the slight differences that the other planet has a third less gravity and 99 percent less air. It’s more like flying at 100,000 feet, Aung suggested.

It has its own solar panel so it can explore more or less on its own

The test rig they set up not only produces a near-vacuum, replacing the air with a thin, Mars-esque CO2 mix, but a “gravity offload” system simulates lower gravity by giving the helicopter a slight lift via a cable.

It flew at a whopping two inches of altitude for a total of a minute in two tests, which was enough to show the team that the craft (with all its 1,500 parts and four pounds) was ready to package up and send to the Red Planet.

“It was a heck of a first flight,” said tester Teddy Tzanetos. “The gravity offload system performed perfectly, just like our helicopter. We only required a 2-inch hover to obtain all the data sets needed to confirm that our Mars helicopter flies autonomously as designed in a thin Mars-like atmosphere; there was no need to go higher.”

A few months after the Mars 2020 rover has landed, the helicopter will detach and do a few test flights of up to 90 seconds. Those will be the first heavier-than-air flights on another planet — powered flight, in other words, rather than, say, a balloon filled with gaseous hydrogen.

The craft will operate mostly autonomously, since the half-hour round trip for commands would be far too long for an Earth-based pilot to operate it. It has its own solar cells and batteries, plus little landing feet, and will attempt flights of increasing distance from the rover over a 30-day period. It should go about three meters in the air and may eventually get hundreds of meters away from its partner.

Mars 2020 is estimated to be ready to launch next summer, arriving at its destination early in 2021. Of course, in the meantime, we’ve still got Curiosity and Insight up there, so if you want the latest from Mars, you’ve got plenty of options to choose from.

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Despite big Marvel and Star Wars shows, Disney+ falls short of targets

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Enlarge / Meta-sitcom/adventure series WandaVision was one of Disney+’s most successful recent shows.

YouTube/Disney+

Analysts expected Disney+ to reach 109 million subscribers in Disney’s most recent financial quarter, but the streaming service fell short, landing at 103.6 million. The shortfall resulted in lower revenues than expected for the company and a small stock price stumble.

Alongside word that Netflix also saw fairly slow growth in its quarter, the news suggests that there is, in fact, a limit to the explosive growth that streaming platforms have experienced amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Still, Disney is staying the course with its current strategy of pumping out TV series in established Disney brands like Marvel and Star Wars, as well as releasing new motion pictures on the platform at the same time they premiere in theaters.

Speaking to investors, Disney CEO Bob Chapek pointed to the Star Wars TV series The Mandalorian as evidence that launching new properties on streaming services can be successful, noting that merchandise sales related to the show were “extraordinary.” (In other words, people are buying a lot of Baby Yoda plushies and the like.)

As such, live-action Disney film Cruella, Marvel movie Black Widow, and Dwayne Johnson vehicle Jungle Cruise will be released simultaneously on Disney+ and in theaters, even as most theaters in the United States have now reopened as vaccination rates in the country rise.

At least on the business side of things, this subscriber tally is widely seen as a significant disappointment and a worrying trend for Disney’s goal of streaming dominance. For example, financial publication CNBC described Disney’s slowing subscriber growth as “Netflix-itis,” given that Netflix also has struggled to keep the wheels turning as fast as they used to.

Disney+’s situation is arguably more concerning, because Disney+’s monthly fee is already quite low at $7.99 per month, inclusive of UltraHD streaming—less than Netflix’s $8.99 for SD, $13.99 for HD, and $17.99 for UltraHD. That doesn’t give Disney a lot of flexibility.

Still, Disney+ is one of the most successful streaming services, and it’s a testament to that success that it is even compared directly to Netflix. Most other services like HBO Max or Paramount+ have far fewer subscribers than either Disney+ or Netflix.

Content offerings and prices are obviously the biggest factors in competition between these platforms, but tech plays a part, too. Streaming services have attempted to outdo one another in a sort of bitrate arms race. For example, HBO’s platforms used to be infamous for poor video quality compared to Netflix and others, but when HBO Max adopted 4K HDR streaming for the premiere of Wonder Woman 1984 in December, the company also significantly improved streaming quality overall.

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TSMC is considering a 3 nm foundry in Arizona

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Enlarge / In a few years, Phoenix residents will be seeing a lot more of this logo.

Reuters reports that TSMC—Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, the chip foundry making advanced processors for Apple, AMD, and Qualcomm—is beefing up its plans to build factories in Arizona while turning away from an advanced plant in Europe.

Last year, TSMC announced that it would invest $10-$12 billion to build a new 5 nm capable foundry near Phoenix, Arizona. According to Reuters’ sources, TSMC officials are considering trebling the company’s investment by building a $25 billion second factory capable of building 3 nm chips. More tentative plans are in the works for 2 nm foundries as the Phoenix campus grows over the next 10-15 years as well.

US President Joe Biden called for $50 billion to subsidize US chip manufacturing facilities, and the US Senate may take action on the item this week. Strong domestic manufacturing capacity is seen as critical, since US chip firms such as Nvidia and Qualcomm rely on Asian manufacturing facilities. TSMC would be competing with Samsung and Intel to secure these Biden administration subsidies.

Intel and Samsung are also increasing investment in US manufacturing facilities. Intel is building two new fabs in Arizona near its existing Chandler facility, and Samsung is building a $17 billion plant in Texas.

The European Union is also courting domestic chip manufacturing facilities—its industry commissioner Thierry Breton has spoken to officials from both Intel and TSMC. The talks seem to have gone better for Intel than TSMC. Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger proposed a $10 billion deal to build a new European factory, while TSMC officials say that although European possibilities aren’t ruled out, they have no plans to build there.

TSMC’s focus on the US rather than Europe may have a lot to do with the company’s market—in Q1 2021, 67 percent of its sales were in North America, 17 percent were in Asia Pacific, and only 6 percent came from Europe and the Middle East. The majority of TSMC’s European clients are auto manufacturers who buy cheaper and less-advanced chips.

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Google Pixel 6 leak shows off distinctive new design

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The Pixel 6 promises to be a landmark device for Google, as it is expected to mark the debut of the Google-developed “Whitechapel” SoC, instead of the Qualcomm chips the search giant has shipped in all of its previous devices. To go along with the revamped insides, it appears the outside is seeing some major design changes, too—if the newest leak is to be believed.

This first look at the Pixel 6 design comes to us from YouTuber Jon Prosser. Prosser claims he was sent live, hands-on images of the device, and while he isn’t sharing the actual images, he teamed up with a render artist to depict the device based on those images.

Prosser’s track record when it comes to Google leaks is not the greatest. Just last month he claimed the Pixel 5a was “canceled,” but that assertion was publicly shot down by Google. This leak has a bit more believability to it, as it was also backed up by Android Police’s Max Weinbach, though he says the colors aren’t accurate.

The most striking thing about the design is the back, which now features a big horizontal camera bump that stretches edge to edge across the phone. It’s definitely distinctive. The renders show two sizes, which Prosser says will be called the “Pixel 6” and “Pixel 6 Pro.” Previously Google named the bigger phone “XL,” but the Pixel line, which has always been about chasing Apple, naturally had to align with Apple’s naming scheme. Prosser doesn’t have exact specs, but the Pro model has three rear cameras, and the base model has two.

Google is reportedly teaming up with Samsung to build the Pixel 6’s Whitechapel SoC, and maybe that’s why the front of the Pixel 6 looks kind of Samsung-y. The Pixel 5 had shallow corners, while the Pixel 6 has sharper display corners, making it look more like a Galaxy Note. The Pixel 5 had a hole punch off to the left side, while the Pixel 6, like a modern Samsung phone, puts it in the center. Prosser also said that “the glass curves around the edges a bit,” which would also make it more like a Samsung phone, as the Pixel 5 display was flat. Another change is an in-screen fingerprint reader; Google has previously gone with a rear capacitive reader.

Nobody knows the specs of this phone yet, and unlike most flagships, there is actually a potential for variance here, since the Pixel 5 was a mid-range phone with a Snapdragon 765G SoC. Is this still a mid-range phone? Will Google’s SoC make any noise from a performance standpoint, or is it just a play for more control over the SoC kernel and a longer window for software updates? We still have a ton of unanswered questions about this phone, but fortunately for us, Google’s hardware team is not great at keeping secrets.

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