Linux flies on Mars onboard Snapdragon-powered Ingenuity drone

There was a great deal of celebration at NASA and around the world when the Perseverance rover safely landed on the surface of Mars. That historic moment, however, carries a few firsts for a lot of things, and not just for space science alone. While the rolling rover is already important in itself, its companion helicopter drone is just as significant as it is the first time NASA used the open source Linux operating system on Mars, opening up the possibilities for tech demos like it in the future.

Ingenuity, Perseverance's flying companion, marks a couple of first things for NASA and Mars missions. It is the first aircraft to fly on Mars, for one, contending with different levels of gravity and atmospheric conditions from those of earth. It is also the first of its kind to be built from off-the-shelf parts, both hardware and software.

The Ingenuity helicopter drone runs on a box powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 801, an older chipset that is apparently space-worthy and newer than the boards NASA has inside its rovers. Other parts that make up the drone were also sourced from easily accessible consumer hardware.

NASA's rovers run on a proprietary VxWorks operating system developed by Wind River but that was not available for the Snapdragon 801 board. That forced the space agency to use its own Linux-based open source software framework, "F prime", which they were already using at JPL for cubesats and instruments.

More than just marking the first time Linux has landed on Mars, NASA JPL's Tim Canham tells IEEE Spectrum that Ingenuity's success is sort of a victory for open source as well. The ability to fly a drone using off-the-shelf parts, an open source operating system, and an open source software framework bodes well for tinkerers and dreamers who might want to experiment on and even improve this planetary drone.