Meet the Open-Source Software Powering NASA's Ingenuity Mars Helicopter

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This illustration shows the Lunar Flashlight spacecraft, a six-unit CubeSat satellite designed to search for ice on the Moon's surface using special lasers.

The spacecraft runs on NASA's open-source flight software, F Prime, which also powers the space agency's first interplanetary craft of its type - the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter.

When the helicopter hovered above the Red Planet on its maiden voyage on 19 April, the moment was hailed as the first instance of powered, controlled flight on another planet.

Figuring out how to fly on Mars, where the air is thin and the gravity is about a third of that on Earth, took years of work.

Along with the challenge of developing a craft that was up to the task, the mission needed software to make the unprecedented flights possible.

So they turned to F Prime, a reusable, multi-mission flight software framework designed for the CubeSat, small spacecraft, and related instruments.

The programme was initially developed in 2013 by a team led by Tim Canham at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California with the aim of creating a low-cost, portable, pliable software architecture option that would allow components written for one application to be reused easily in other applications and run on a range of processors.

In 2017, the team pushed for F Prime to be released as open-source, meaning anyone could freely access the software's source code, allowing external collaborators, universities, and the general public to use the framework on their own projects.

It is one of hundreds of codes NASA makes available to the public for free, both as open-source or through its software catalogue.

"F Prime has enabled a lot of goals we've had at JPL to design a truly reusable multi-mission flight architecture with the added bonus of the open-source collaboration and visibility afforded by the Mars Helicopter project," Canham said. "It's kind of an open-source victory, because we're flying an open-source operating system and an open-source flight software framework, and flying commercial parts that you can buy off the shelf, if you wanted to do this yourself someday."

Looking forward, F Prime is scheduled to run on projects that will look for surface ice in the Moon's craters, map an asteroid, and help search for water-based life in our solar system.

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