Software helps NASA helicopters fly successfully to Mars

Software helps NASA helicopters fly successfully to Mars

AmericaF prime open source software Ingenuity is one of the major factors contributing to the success of helicopter flights.

Simulate the Ingenuity helicopter hovering over the Red Planet. Image: NASA.

When NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter hovered over the Red Planet in its maiden flight on April 19, the moment marked the first controlled-powered flight to another planet. The process of determining how to fly to Mars, which has a thin atmosphere but only a third of Earth’s gravity, took years. Along with the challenge of developing the mission machine, engineers also needed software that would make the groundbreaking flight possible.

The Ingenuity project team selected F Prime, a reusable multi-mission flight software framework designed for use with CubeSat satellites, small spacecraft and instruments. The program was first developed in 2013 by a team of researchers led by Tim Canham at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, aiming to create a software alternative that is easy to adjust, flexible and affordable. Parts written for one application and running on multiple processors in other applications.

In 2017, researchers launched F Prime as open source, meaning that anyone can freely access the source code of the software, so external partners, universities and communities can use the framework in their projects. Huh. It is one of hundreds of code sets that NASA shares with the community for free.

“It’s an open-source win, because we’ve spun off an open-source operating system and open-source flying software framework with commercially available components,” Canham said. The Ingenuity Helicopter is a combination of several custom and off-the-shelf parts, some derived from mobile phone technology, including two cameras.

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Prior to Ingenuity, F Prime has been used on spacecraft, on diffusers aboard the International Space Station (ISS) since 2014 and successfully operating JPL’s ASTERIA CubeSat satellite in 2017. NASA’s Lunar Flashlight CubeSat, which searches for ice in lunar craters, the Near-Earth Asteroid Scout CubeSat in charge of asteroid mapping, and JPL’s Ocean World Life Surveyor, the instrumentation that helps search for signs of life in the Solar System.

Adil Rizvi, flight software team lead on the Lunar Flashlight and NEA Scout projects at JPL, said the F Prime provides a successful solution for a range of software services, including command transmission, telemetry and ship programming. The self-encoding engine makes F Prime highly portable for use in a wide variety of tasks.

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