Who said penguins don't fly? If it depends on Nasa, they do fly: Linux was the operating system chosen by the agency for the Ingenuity helicopter, which has already is on Mars and will soon attempt the first flight on the surface of another planet.

The information was mentioned by Tim Canham, software engineer for the US space agency in interview to IEEE Spectrum. “This is the first time that we have taken Linux to Mars […] We have never used Linux before, to my knowledge. Definitely not in the rovers previous", said.

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The option for Linux was the result of another unusual choice: Ingenuity is based on the Snapdragon 801 processor, from Qualcomm, a 2014 chip equipped with 4 cores running at 2,5 GHz, which has already been used in several commercially available smartphones.

Diagram of a Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor, the same used in Ingenuity
Diagram of a Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor. Image: Qualcomm / Reproduction

The helicopter is not part of the main mission of Perseverance, but rather a “demonstration of technology” to prove it is possible to fly on Mars. For this reason, it was built with commercially available components (“off-the-shelf”, in industry jargon) and low cost, instead of solutions specially developed for use in space.

“We wanted a powerful and compact processor for the helicopter, and the best candidate was a Snapdragon 801 card that we found. But there is no version of VxWorks for it, ”said Canham. PC Magazine. "It is certainly a victory for Linux".

VxWorks is a real-time operating system for embedded systems, developed by the North American company Wind River Systems. It has already been used in several other NASA vehicles, including previous rovers.

Ingenuity during assembly at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).
Ingenuity during assembly at NASA's jet propulsion laboratory (JPL). Image: NASA / JPL

More specifically, Ingenuity software is based on the FPrime, Open Source “framework” developed by NASA itself to “enable the rapid development and deployment of embedded software applications for space flight”.

As powerful as Android phones

The use of Snapdragon 801 makes Ingenuity more powerful than the Perseverance rover itself. That's because the helicopter was designed to operate autonomously, taking off and landing without human intervention. Due to the communication delay between Earth and Mars (currently 22 minutes for a signal to and from a signal) it would be impossible to control the helicopter directly.

Perseverance, on the other hand, is based on a “ruggedized” computer and prepared to operate in environments with high levels of radiation, such as the surface of Mars. The Bae Rad750 is equipped with a 750 MHz PowerPC 200 processor, 256 MB of RAM and 2 GB of internal memory. As powerful as an Apple Powerbook G3 “Wall Street”, from 1998, or the first “green” iMacs. The operating system is VxWorks.

Image of the BAE 750 plate, computer that is the brain of Perseverance
The BAE 750 computer is the “brain” of Perseverance. Image: Artisan Technology Group / Reproduction

The “outdated” technology has a few reasons: projects like Perseverance take decades from the concept phase to the landing. The hardware platform is one of the first things defined, and it cannot change throughout the project as everything else, such as software and systems, is based on it.

In addition, the platform is very similar to the one used in the Curiosity rover, which has been exploring Mars for eight years. For NASA, something better "older", but reliable, is better than a brand new product that has never been tested beyond the Earth's atmosphere.

Source: IEEE Spectrum, PC Magazine (1)

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