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Linux conquers Mars: NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter accompanying Perseverance boasts Open Source at heart

TechnologyLinux conquers Mars: NASA's Ingenuity helicopter accompanying Perseverance boasts Open Source at heart

It was spectacular to see how the Perseverance rover landed successfully on Mars a few hours ago, and surely this NASA mission will soon give other great news in which the other vehicle protagonist of this mission will also collaborate: the Ingenuity helicopter.

There are many curious details about this aerial vehicle, but one of the most remarkable is that it is governed by the Linux operating system. NASA in fact already published the project as Open Source years ago, and this proves once again the Linux miracle, which may not have conquered the desktop – recurring joke – but it has certainly already conquered Mars.

In IEEE Spectrum, NASA JPL engineers explained how this helicopter, which is the size of “a box of tissues” and has 1.2 m rotors made of carbon fiber, works. It weighs only 1.8 kg, but is capable of withstanding extreme temperatures and flies completely autonomously because, logically, real-time control is unfeasible.

Ingenuity is more of an experiment than anything else, and NASA is satisfied that it will be able to take some photos and perform some 90-second flights during the 30 days they have estimated for its operational life cycle. Even so, the details about its hardware and software are curious, and for example the processor used is the veteran Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 that for example was used in the Samsung Galaxy S5 of 2014.

This processor, explained one of the JPL engineers, is much more powerful than that of the Perseverance rover itself, but they need that computational capacity to control the flight in an atmosphere as delicate as that of Mars. In addition, this SoC can capture images with a 13 Mpixel sensor and analyze them at 30 Hz.

In the software section, what stands out especially is that, as pointed out by JPL, “this is the first time we will fly with Linux on Mars. In fact everything is based on the Linux operating system”. The framework used in Ingenuity, called F’ (“fprime”), was already published as Open Source years ago, so anyone can take advantage of it for their projects in this sense.

In fact, explained this engineer, Ingenuity is a small revolution for JPL because they tend to like components “that are very safe and proven”, but in this case “this is kind of a victory for Open Source, because we fly with an Open Source operating system and an Open Source flight environment and commercially available components that you can buy in stores if you want to do something like this someday”.


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