NASA’s next lunar rover will run open source software



But the space industry is booming, in large part because there is a demand for increased access to space. And this requires the use of cheaper and more accessible technologies, including software.

Even for larger groups like NASA, where money is not an issue, the open source approach can result in more powerful software. “The flight software right now, I would say, is pretty poor in space,” said Dylan Taylor, president and CEO of Voyager Space Holdings. (Example: Boeing’s Starliner test flight failure in 2019, which was due to software glitches.) If it is open source software, the smartest scientists can still take advantage of it. ‘expertise and feedback from a larger community if it runs into issues, just as hobbyist developers do. .

Basically, if it’s good enough for NASA, it should probably be good enough for anyone trying to get a robot to work off of this planet. With an ever-growing number of new companies and national agencies around the world looking to launch their own satellites and probes into space while reducing costs, cheaper robotics software that can confidently handle anything. ‘As risky as a space mission is a huge boon.

Open source software can also help make access to space cheaper, as it leads to standards that anyone can adopt and work with. You can eliminate the high costs associated with specialized coding. Open source frameworks are usually something new engineers have worked with before. “If we can just take that and increase that pipeline from what they learned in school to what they use in flight missions, it shortens the learning curve,” said Terry Fong, Chief roboticist of the Intelligent Robotics Group at the NASA Ames Research Center. in California, and deputy rover chief for the VIPER mission. “It speeds things up so that we can take advantage of and implement advances in the research world. “

NASA has been using open source software in many R&D projects for about 10 to 15 years now. The agency maintains a very comprehensive catalog of the open source code it has used. But the role of this technology in real robots sent into space is still emerging. One system the agency has tested is the Robot Operating System, a collection of open source software frameworks maintained and updated by the nonprofit Open Robotics, also based in Mountain View. ROS is already in use in Robonaut 2, the humanoid robot that aided research on the International Space Station, as well as the Autonomous Astrobee robots buzzing around the ISS to help astronauts perform daily tasks.

The Astrobee robot on the International Space Station runs on ROS.


ROS will perform and facilitate tasks essential to what is known as “ground flight control”. VIPER is going to be driven by NASA personnel who will be operating things from Earth. Ground flight control will use the data collected by VIPER to create maps and real-time renderings of the environment on the moon that rover drivers can use to navigate safely. Other parts of the rover’s software also have open source roots: basic functions like telemetry and memory management are handled on board by a program called Core Flight System (cFS), developed by NASA itself. and available for free on GitHub. VIPER’s mission operations outside of the rover itself are handled by Open MCT, also created by NASA.

Compared to Mars, the lunar environment is very difficult to physically mimic on Earth, which means testing a rover’s hardware and software components isn’t easy. For this mission, Fong said, it made more sense to rely on digital simulations that could test many of the rover’s components, and which included open source software.

Another reason the mission lends itself to the use of open source software is that the moon is close enough for near real-time control of the rover, which means that some software does not need to be on the rover itself and can operate on Earth instead.

“We decided to divide the robot’s brain between the Moon and the Earth,” Fong explains. “And as soon as we did, it opened up the possibility of using software that is not limited by radiation resistant flight computing, but instead we can just use standard commercial desktops.” . So we can use things like ROS in the field, something that so many people use so regularly. We don’t have to rely on custom software alone.

VIPER does not run on 100% open source software – its on-board flight system, for example, uses extremely reliable proprietary software. But it’s easy to see future missions adopt and expand on what VIPER will perform. “I suspect that NASA’s next rover will run Linux,” Fong says.

It will never be possible to use open source software in all cases. Security concerns could be an issue and could cause some parties to stick entirely with proprietary technology (although an advantage of open source platforms is that developers are often very public to find loopholes and come up with solutions. fixes). And Fong also points out that some missions will always be too specialized or advanced to rely heavily on open source technology.

Yet it’s not just NASA that is turning to the open source community. Blue Origin recently announced a partnership with several NASA groups to “code robotic intelligence and autonomy” built from open source frameworks (the company declined to provide details). Smaller initiatives like the Greece-based Libre Space Foundation, which provides open source hardware and software for small satellite activities, should gain more attention as spaceflight continues to become cheaper. “There’s a domino effect there,” says Brian Gerkey, CEO of Open Robotics. “Once you have a large organization like NASA that says publicly, ‘We depend on this software,’ then other organizations are ready to take a chance and dig in and do the work to make it work for them. . “



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