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Open Source: The next moon rover will run with free software

In 2023 NASA will send the Viper Rover (Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover) to search for water ice on the lunar surface. This could one day be used to make rocket fuel. The rover will be equipped with high-tech instruments and tools: wheels that spin well on the dusty lunar soil, a drill that can dig into the alien soil, and hardware that can survive the 14-day lunar nights in which the temperatures drop to -173 degrees.

While Viper's equipment is largely bespoke for the mission, most of the rover runs on open source software. It can therefore be freely used and changed. If the mission is successful, it may not only lay the foundation for a future lunar colony, but also induce the space industry to develop and operate their robots differently.

Up until now, one rarely thinks of open source technology when it comes to space missions. It costs enormous sums of money to build something suitable for space that finds its way to a destination up to hundreds of thousands of miles away and carries out certain tasks there. The natural impulse is usually to shield the necessary know-how. Open source software, on the other hand, is often associated with cobbled-together programming for smaller projects like hackathons or student demos. The programming code that fills online platforms like GitHub is often a cost-effective solution for those groups who have little money and resources to start from scratch when programming.

Off into space with Linux

The space industry is on the advance not least because of the growing urge to go into space. This also means demand for inexpensive and accessible technologies, including software. Even for larger groups like NASA, where money is less of an issue, the open source approach can lead to better software. "Flight software is pretty mediocre in space right now," said Dylan Taylor, chairman and chief executive officer of Voyager Space Holdings. A case in point is Boeing's 2019 Starliner test flight bug, which caused software problems. With open source, even the best scientists can access additional expertise and feedback from a wider community when problems arise, just as amateur developers do.

So if open source software is good enough for NASA, it should probably be good enough for anyone else trying to control a robot from Earth, too. As more and more new companies and new national agencies around the world try to get their own satellites and probes into space while keeping costs down, cheaper robotic software that can safely handle even risky space missions could be a huge benefit.

Open source software can also help make access to space cheaper as it leads to standards that anyone can work with. They can help avoid the high costs of specialized programming. As a rule, even freshly trained engineers have already worked with open source frameworks. "If we can just use that and expand the pipeline of their university knowledge into what they use for flight missions, the learning curve will be shortened," said Terry Fong, chief robotics officer for the Intelligent Robotics Group at NASA Ames Research Center in California and assistant rover for the Viper -Mission. "It accelerates the implementation of advances in the research world into practice."

Has been with us for many years

NASA has been using open source software in many research and development projects for about ten to 15 years. The agency has a very extensive catalog of its open source programming codes. However, their use in space robots is still in its infancy. One of the systems that the agency has tested is the Robot Operating System (ROS). It is a collection of open source software frameworks that are maintained and updated by the nonprofit Open Robotics based in Mountain View. ROS is already used in the humanoid Robonaut 2, who helped research the International Space Station, and in the autonomous Astrobee robots that float around the ISS to assist astronauts with everyday tasks.

The Robot Operating System will perform ground flight control tasks. NASA employees control the Viper rover from Earth. The ground flight control then uses the collected Viper data to create a real-time map and renderings of the lunar environment with which the rover drivers can safely navigate. Other parts of the rover software also have open source roots: The "Core Flight System" (cFS) program, which NASA developed itself and made available free of charge on GitHub, is responsible for basic functions such as telemetry and memory management on board. Viper's mission operations outside of the rover itself are handled by Open MCT, another NASA development.

Compared to Mars, it is very difficult to physically simulate the lunar environment on Earth. This also makes testing the hardware and software components of rovers difficult. For this mission, Fong says it makes more sense to rely on digital simulations that could be used to test many of the rover's components. This also includes the open source software.

Rover controllable almost in real time

The mission is also suitable for open source software because the moon is close enough to be able to control the rover in almost real time. This means that some of the software does not have to reside on the rover itself, but can also run on earth.

"We decided to split the robot's brain between the moon and earth," says Fong. "This opened up the possibility for software that is not limited to radiation-intensive flight calculations. Instead, we can use off-the-shelf desktops. So we can use systems like ROS on Earth, which many already use regularly. We don't just have to rely on customer-specific software leave."

However, Viper does not run 100 percent with open source software. For example, its on-board flight system uses highly reliable proprietary software. However, it can be assumed that future missions will adopt and expand Viper's software. "I suspect that maybe NASA's next rover will run Linux," says Fong.

Security concerns?

It will not be possible to use open source software in all cases. Security concerns could lead some parties to fully adhere to proprietary technologies - although a plus of open source platforms is that developers are often very open about bugs and patches. Fong also emphasizes that some missions will always be too specialized or advanced to rely heavily on open source technology.

Still, it's not just NASA that appeals to the open source community. Jeff Bezos ‘space company Blue Origin also recently announced a partnership with several NASA groups to" program robotic intelligence and autonomy "based on open source frameworks. Smaller initiatives like the Greece-based Libre Space Foundation, which provides open source hardware and software for small satellite activities, are sure to get more attention as space travel becomes cheaper.

"There is a domino effect," says Brian Gerkey, CEO of Open Robotics. "Once a large organization like NASA publicly says, 'We're relying on this software', other organizations will be willing to take a risk and put work into customizing it."