Open Source and Space

Linux landed on Mars

Published on: 24/02/2021

The drone helicopter Ingenuity, landed on Mars on February 18, represents a success for the Open Source community, as it runs on a Linux operating system and is based on an Open Source Software framework, called F’ (“F Prime”).

February 18 will be remembered as a historical date. For the first time, Mars is hosting the drone helicopter “Ingenuity” on its ground, as a result of the Mars Helicopter mission run by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). The mission is a technology demonstration included in the broader NASA mission Mars 2020, whose main goal is to seek signs of ancient life and collect samples of rock and regolith through the rover “Perseverance”.


As stated by Tim Canham, Mars Helicopter Operations Lead at NASA’s JPL, this mission can be addressed as “an open-source victory, because we are flying an open-source operating system and an open-source flight software framework and flying commercial parts”.

In fact, the helicopter works on a Linux operating system. Also, it runs on an OS software framework for small-scale flight software systems called F’ (“F Prime”), developed and open-sourced by JPL.  Finally, it is built using commercial off-the-shelf hardware, which are OS too.

This is a remarkable result for the OS community. First of all, Mars Helicopter is not the only case where NASA open-sourced this software framework. The agency has made extensive use of F’ for other flight projects and research initiatives, such as ISS RapidScat, ASTERIA, Lunar Flashlight and Near Earth Asteroid (NEA) Scout. Additionally, considering the fact that NASA invested about $85 million of public money (as it relies on the US Congress for its funding) to build and operate Ingenuity, it clearly showed the increasing interest that government agencies nurture for OS software and hardware.

So far, Mars Helicopter has proven successful. Hitched to Perseverance since July 30 2020, the helicopter is now ready to uncouple and start flying on its own. As the first aircraft ever launched to Mars, any additional activity it will perform (from taking off and flying to shooting pictures of the surroundings) will be considered as an exceptional achievement for NASA.