In 2023, NASA will launch VIPER (Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover), which that will trek across the surface of the moon and hunt for water ice that could one day be used to make rocket fuel. The rover will be armed with the best instruments and tools that NASA can come up with: wheels that can spin properly on lunar soil, a drill that’s able to dig into extraterrestrial geology, hardware that can survive 14 days of a lunar night when temperatures sink to ˗173 °C. 

But while much of VIPER is one of a kind, custom-made for the mission, much of the software that it’s running is open-source, meaning it’s available for use, modification, and distribution by anyone for any purpose. If it’s successful, the mission may be about more than just laying the groundwork for a future lunar colony—it may also be an inflection point that causes the space industry to think differently about how it develops and operates robots.

Open-source tech rarely comes to mind when we talk about space missions. It takes a tremendous amount of money to build something that can be launched into space, make its way to its proper destination, and then fulfill a specific set of tasks hundreds or thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of miles away. Keeping the know-how to pull those things off close to one’s chest is a natural inclination. Open-source software, meanwhile, is more usually associated with scrappy programming for smaller projects, like hackathons or student demos. The code that fills online repositories like GitHub is often an inexpensive solution for groups running low on cash and resources needed to build code from scratch. 

But the space industry is surging, in no small part because there’s a demand for increased access to space. And that means the use of technologies that are less expensive and more accessible, including software.

Even for bigger groups like NASA, where money’s not an issue, the open-source approach may end up leading to stronger software. “Flight software right now, I would say, is pretty mediocre in space,” says Dylan Taylor, the chairman and CEO of Voyager Space Holdings. (Case in point: Boeing’s Starliner test flight failure in 2019, which was due to software glitches.) If it’s open-source, the smartest scientists can still leverage a larger community’s expertise and feedback if it runs into problems, just as amateur developers do. 

Basically, if it’s good enough for NASA, it should presumably be good enough for anyone else trying to operate a robot off this planet. With an ever-increasing number of new companies and new national agencies around the world seeking to launch their own satellites and probes into space while keeping costs down, cheaper robotics software that can confidently handle something as risky as a space mission is a huge boon. 

Open-source software can also help make getting to space cheaper because it leads to standards everyone can adopt and

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By: Neel V. Patel
Title: NASA’s next lunar rover will run open-source software
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Published Date: Mon, 12 Apr 2021 09:00:00 +0000

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