Open-Source Software and Its Role in Space Exploration

A software developer from JPL explains the reasons that NASA has embraced free and open source software in its application development process. Because, in a Mars launch, the term "mission critical" has a literal meaning.

By DJ Byrne
Tue, May 22, 2007

CIO — What did the rocket scientist say to the Free/Open Source Software developer? Let's do launch! It's only natural that they'd want to work together. Both communities are focused on the cutting edge: creating tools and capabilities that did not previously exist. Both dedicate their work to expanding humanity's pool of information and want that information to float freely through society.

I am a software developer currently working on the NASA/JPL MSL (Mars Science Laboratory) rover, which launches in 2009. These are personal observations of how I encounter Free/Open Source Software (FOSS), and what I think about it.

Common Goals

Free floating information feeds a cycle of knowledge. Where the FOSS community donates code, algorithms and products, NASA and other organizations reciprocate with knowledge about weather systems, climate and basic science. Everyone contributes what they're best at, and tightly chartered organizations can stay focused on deeper penetration of hard problems, confident that others are doing the same. Space exploration is necessarily a cooperative venture; it's much too hard for anything less than all of humanity.

Look at these statements side by side, and you'll see the philosophical similarities:

NASA codifies its dedication in Congress' Space Act Charter:

[NASA shall] ... provide for the widest practicable and appropriate dissemination of information concerning its activities and the results thereof...

The Open Source Initiative criteria for "Open Source" includes:

  • Allow free redistribution
  • Provide access to source code
  • Allow modifications and the creation of "derived works"

FOSS developers codify that dedication in copyrights, copy-lefts, and license agreements like the GPL (GNU Public License), which says in part:

When we speak of free software, we are referring to freedom, not price. Our General Public Licenses are designed to make sure that you have the freedom to distribute copies of free software (and charge for this service if you wish), that you receive source code or can get it if you want it, that you can change the software or use pieces of it in new free programs; and that you know you can do these things.

Open Source in Space

Need a few examples?

FOSS explores our Solar System. We send robots to the moon, Mars and beyond to flyby, orbit or land. FOSS goes with them, pervasive in the real-time operating systems, math libraries and file systems. Consider the robotic decisions of where to rove, and realize the power given the human race by the Free Software Foundation's (FSF) compilers, libraries, build scripts and so on.

"Electra" is NASA/JPL's Software Defined Radio (SDR) product created to support the Mars Network, and the InterPlanetary Internet. Electra provides UHF radio links in compliance with Consultative Committee for Space Data Systems (CCSDS) protocols Proximity-1 (data link) and CFDP (file delivery).

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