Thursday, November 30, 2023

NASA’s next lunar rover will run open source software

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But the space industry is booming, in large part because there is a demand for increased access to space. And that means using less expensive 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. “Right now I would say flight software is pretty poor in space,” says Dylan Taylor, president and CEO of Voyager Space Holdings. (Example: the failure of the Boeing Starliner test flight in 2019, due to software issuesIf it’s open-source, the smartest scientists can still tap into the expertise and feedback of a larger community if something goes wrong, just like hobbyist developers do.

Basically, if it’s good enough for NASA, it should probably be good enough for anyone trying to operate a robot off this planet. With an ever increasing number of new businesses and new national agencies around the world Seeking to launch their own satellites and probes into space while cutting costs, cheaper robotics software that can confidently handle something 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 advantage of that and increase that pipeline from what they learned in school to what they use in flight missions, it shortens the learning curve,” says Terry Fong, Principal of the Intelligent Robotics Group at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, and Deputy Head of the VIPER mission. “It speeds things up so that we can take advancements in the research world and put them in flight.”

NASA has been using open-source software in many R&D projects for about 10 to 15 years now. full catalog of the open-source code he 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 set of open source software frameworks maintained and updated by the nonprofit Open Robotics, also based in Mountain View. ROS is already used in Robonaut 2, the humanoid robot that contributed to research on the International Space Station, as well as the autonomous robot Astrobee robots buzzing around the ISS to help astronauts perform their 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 will be driven by NASA personnel who will be operating things from Earth. Ground flight control will use the data collected by VIPER to create real-time maps and 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 Basic Flight System (cFS), developed by NASA itself and available for free on GitHub. VIPER mission operations outside of the rover itself are managed by Open MCT, also created by NASA.

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

Another reason the mission lends itself to the use of open source software is that the moon is close enough to control the rover in near real time, 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 that, it opened up the possibility that we could use software that is not limited by radiation, hard theft, computing – but instead we can just use desktops. standard commercials. 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 embrace and develop what VIPER will lead. “I suspect that maybe 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 to proprietary technology (although one of the advantages of open-source platforms is that developers are often very public to find solutions. flaws and propose 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 Libre Space Foundation based in Greece, which provides open-source hardware and software for small satellite activities, is sure to gain more attention as spaceflight continues to get cheaper. “There’s a domino effect there,” says Brian Gerkey, CEO of Open Robotics. “Once a large organization like NASA publicly says, ‘We depend on this software,’ then other organizations are ready to take a chance and dig in and do the work that is necessary to make it work for them.”


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