“Previous NASA Mars rovers mostly used an operating system from Wind River Systems. But this time, the space agency chose Linux for Perseverance’s Ingenuity helicopter drone.
When NASA’s Perseverance rover landed on Mars this week, it also brought the Linux operating system to the Red Planet.
The tidbit was mentioned in an interview NASA software engineer Tim Canham gave to IEEE Spectrum. The helicopter-like drone on board the Perseverance rover uses a Linux-powered software framework the space agency open-sourced a few years ago. “This the first time we’ll be flying Linux on Mars. We’re actually running on a Linux operating system,” Canham said.
It also might be the first time NASA has brought a Linux-based device to Mars. “There isn’t a previous use of Linux that I’m aware of, definitely on the previous rovers,” Canham told PCMag in an email.
Past Mars rovers have used proprietary OSes, largely from the software company Wind River Systems. The same is true for the Perseverance rover itself; the machine has been installed with Wind River’s VxWorks, which was used on past Mars missions.
However, NASA settled on the Linux OS for the rover’s helicopter-like drone, Ingenuity, which was built using off-the-shelf parts, including Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 801 processor, a smartphone chip.
“We wanted to pick a powerful compact processor for the Helicopter, and the best candidate was the Snapdragon 801 board we found. [But] they didn’t have VxWorks for the board,” Canham told PCMag. “It’s definitely a win for Linux.”
We’ll have to wait and see how the drone performs. Ingenuity is a proof-of-concept for test-flying an object in the Martian environment, which has a different gravity and a thinner atmosphere than Earth. The gathered insights will then be used to develop better drones for future missions to the planet.”