Science

Linux flies to Mars in a Snapdragon powered drone

There was a great deal of celebration at NASA and around the world when the persistent rover landed safely on Mars. However, that historic moment holds little beginnings for a lot of things, and not just space science alone. While the Rolling Rover is already important in its own right, its accompanying helicopter is just as important as it being the first time that NASA has used the open source Linux operating system on Mars, opening the possibilities for similar tech offerings in the future.

Creativity, the companion of perseverance in flight, is the first thing about NASA and Mars missions. It is the first plane to fly on Mars, solo, to deal with different levels of gravity and weather conditions than those on Earth. It is also the first of its kind to be manufactured from pre-made parts, whether hardware or software.

The Ingenuity helicopter is running on a box with the Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor, an older, seemingly space-worthy chipset and newer than the boards that NASA has inside its rover. The other parts that make up the drone have also been sourced from accessible consumer devices.

NASA rovers run on a proprietary VxWorks operating system developed by Wind River, but that was not available for the Snapdragon 801. This forced the space agency to use an open source software framework based on Linux, “F prime”, which they were already using in JPL for the cubes. And tools.

More than just marking the first time Linux landed on Mars, Tim Canham of NASA JPL told IEEE Spectrum that Ingenuity’s success is kind of a victory for open source, too. The ability to fly a drone using off-the-shelf parts, an open-source operating system, and an open-source software framework bodes well for creatives and dreamers who may want to experiment and improve this planetary drone.

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