NASA’s upcoming lunar module will run open source software

But the space industry is booming, in large part due to the demand for increased access to space. This means using less expensive and more accessible technologies, including software.

Even for larger groups like NASA, where money is not an issue, an open source approach may end up with more powerful software. “Flying software at the moment is very modest in space,” says Dylan Taylor, chairman and CEO of Voyager Space Holdings. (Case in point: Boeing’s Starliner test flight failed in 2019, which was Because of software glitches.) If it’s open source, the smartest scientists can still benefit from the expertise and feedback of the larger community if they run into trouble, just as hobbyist developers do.

Basically, if it’s good enough for NASA, it should be good enough for anyone else trying to operate a robot outside of this planet. With an increasing number of new companies and New national agencies around the world Seeking to launch their own satellites and probes into space while keeping costs low, cheaper robotic software that can confidently handle something as risky as a space mission is a huge boon.

Open source software can also help make space access cheaper because it leads to standards that everyone can adopt and work with. You can get rid of the prohibitive costs associated with professional coding. Open source frameworks are usually something new engineers have already worked with. “If we can take advantage of that and increase this pipeline from what they learn in school to what they use on flight missions, that shortens the learning curve,” says Terry Fung, chief robotics expert in the Intelligent Robotics Group at NASA’s Ames Research Center. In California, the rover is on the VIPER mission. “It makes things faster for us to take developments out of the research world and put it on launch.”

NASA has been using open source software in many research and development projects for about 10 to 15 years now – the agency keeps more Comprehensive catalog From the open source code I used. But the role of this technology in actual robots sent into space is still emerging. One of the systems the agency has tried is the Android Operating System, which is a collection of open-source software frameworks that are maintained and updated by the nonprofit Open Robotics, also based in Mountain View. ROS was already used in Robonaut 2, the human-like robot that helped research the International Space Station, as well as an autonomous robot. Astrobic robots Buzzing around the International Space Station to help astronauts perform daily tasks.

NASA Astrobee
The Astrobee robot on the International Space Station is running on a ROS system.


The ROS would operate and facilitate the critical tasks of something called “ground flight control”. VIPER will be led by NASA personnel who will be operating things from Earth. The ground flight control system will take data collected by VIPER to create real-time maps and environmental displays on the moon that vehicle drivers can use to navigate safely. Other parts of the rover software have open source roots as well: basic functions such as telemetry and on-board memory management are handled by a program called Basic Flight System (cFS)Developed by NASA itself and Available for free on Github. VIPER mission operations are handled outside of the rover itself Open MCTAlso created by NASA.

Compared to Mars, it is extremely difficult to physically simulate the lunar environment on Earth, which means that testing the spacecraft’s hardware and software components is not easy. For this task, Fung says, it made sense to rely on digital simulations that could test many of the rover components, which included open source software.

Another reason the mission lends itself to using open source software is that the moon is close enough to control in near-real time to the rover, which means that some programs do not need to be on the rover itself and can run on Earth instead.

“We decided to split robot brains between the moon and the earth,” says Fong. “Once we did that, it opened up the possibility of using software that is not limited to extreme radiation computing of flight – but instead, we can only use commodity-ready commercial desktop computers. So we can take advantage of things like ROS on the ground, which is something a lot of people use Regularly. We don’t have to rely only on custom software. “

VIPER does not work on 100% open source software – the in-flight flight system, for example, uses very reliable proprietary software. But it’s easy to see future missions embracing and expanding on what Weber will do. “I suspect the next NASA rover will run Linux,” says Fong.

It will never be possible to use open source software in all cases. Security concerns can be an issue, and it may cause some parties to commit to wholly owned technology (although one of the open-source platforms is that developers often go public about finding flaws and suggesting corrections). Fung also stresses that some tasks will always be too specialized or too advanced to rely too heavily on open source technology.

However, it’s not just NASA that is moving towards the open source community. Blue Origin recently announced a partnership with several NASA groups to “Encode Automated Intelligence and Autonomy.” Built from open source frameworks (The company declined to provide details.) Smaller initiatives like Lieber Space Foundation Based in Greece, which provides open source hardware and software for small satellite activities, it is bound to gain more attention as the cost of space travel continues to decline. “There’s a domino effect out there,” says Brian Gerkey, CEO of Open Robotics. “Once you have a large organization like NASA saying publicly, ‘We depend on this program,’ then other organizations are willing to seize the opportunity, research and do the necessary work to get it to work for them.”

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