Mars Helicopter Continues to Soar with Open-Source Software

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter’s fifth flight was captured on May 7, 2021, by one of the navigation cameras aboard the agency’s Perseverance rover.

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter’s fifth flight was captured on May 7, 2021, by one of the navigation cameras aboard the agency’s Perseverance rover. NASA/JPL-Caltech

One of the truly amazing things about Ingenuity is that it’s built from commercially available hardware parts and runs on free, open-source software.

As I write this column, I am also periodically gazing through my telescope on this magical night. This is due to the rare planetary conjunction where Venus, which was once mistakenly named the Evening Star, appears to be right beside the planet Mars in the night sky. Normally, those two planets orbit the sun on opposite sides of the Earth, but on a very special night in July, they almost touch. I can hold up a finger to bridge the gap between the two planets, at least from our perspective back here on Earth.

I was not just thinking about Mars and Venus because they were dancing on my fingertips this evening, but also because I was planning on writing my column about some of the amazing things that (yet again) NASA’s Mars Ingenuity helicopter is doing on Mars. But I also didn’t want to overlook some potential news about our other close planetary neighbor.

Venus has always been a bit of a mystery. Its atmosphere is mostly carbon dioxide and nitrogen, and is much more dense than on Earth. I have little doubt that the surface of Venus must look amazing, and probably a lot more diverse compared with some of the recent landscapes found on Mars. There are thousands upon thousands of volcanoes on Venus, from little ones that gather in groups like forests to a few that are truly massive, towering miles above the rest of the planet belching smoke and spewing raging rivers of lava. It’s estimated that the planet has between 100,000 and one million active volcanoes. 

It’s too bad that the clouds obscure our view of the surface of Venus from Earth, which forces most studies and surveys to be conducted using radar. But it’s an inhospitable place all around. The pressure is crushing at 1,350 psi, about the same as being 3,000 feet (900 meters) underwater on Earth, which is more than the classified but estimated crush depth of most of the world’s modern submarines. This combined with an average daily temperature of 872 degrees Fahrenheit makes it a truly hellish landscape. It would be all but impossible for our little planet-roving robots to survive there. The sulfuric acid rain that pours down all day from the stormy skies also puts a damper on exploration.

But we have not given up on Venus. NASA recently announced plans for two new missions to Venus, expected to launch in 2028 and 2030. The recent findings of phosphine gas, which is produced by bacteria on Earth, has renewed interest in the planet. It could be an indication of life, though that is far from certain. In any case, don’t expect to see any NASA robots wandering Venus, but we should get some new data soon about a planet that NASA has not visited since 1978.

Soaring High on Open-Source Wings

For now, the planet in the news is Mars, which is currently balanced just on the other side of my pointer finger from Venus, though they are about 60 million miles apart in actuality. Here we find the Ingenuity helicopter once again outperforming itself, breaking new speed and flying records on its ninth flight over the Jezero Crater. Of course, it’s the only helicopter on the planet, so all the records that are currently being broken are its own. But it’s still impressive that the little chopper that was built for a single, 30-second flight, is still going strong and even assisting in exploration duties.

“Flight 9 … broke our records for flight duration and cruise speed, and it nearly quadrupled the distance flown between two airfields,” the team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory wrote in their blog. “But what really set the flight apart was the terrain that Ingenuity had to negotiate during its 2 minutes and 46 seconds in the air — an area called Séítah that would be difficult to traverse with a ground vehicle like the Perseverance rover. This flight was also explicitly designed to have science value by providing the first close view of major science targets that the rover will not reach for quite some time.”

But what I found most interesting this week is not so much the flights themselves, which are impressive, but the fact that Ingenuity is largely controlled by open-source software. The idea behind the open-source software movement is that by releasing code to the public, it allows for multiple people to work on it, improve it, troubleshoot problems and then use the resulting code in whatever projects any user needs.

The software that drives Ingenuity is called F Prime, and was originally created by NASA engineers in 2013. It was made open source and released to the public in 2017 for further refinement and development. It’s currently available for free through GitHub, and NASA says anyone can use the code in their own projects, or work to improve the existing program.

One of the truly amazing things about Ingenuity is that it’s built from commercially available hardware parts and runs on free, open-source software. So if someone wanted to, they could build and control their own Mars helicopter, or modify the design as they see fit for other applications.

NASA has big plans for F Prime, because in a way the software has kind of become an otherworld explorer too. It’s scheduled to be a part of the Lunar Flashlight CubeSat project looking for ice on the Moon, the Near-Earth Asteroid Scout project to map an asteroid and even the Ocean Worlds Life Surveyor instrument which will seek out water and life within our solar system.

As I finish up tonight, Mars and Venus are beginning to imperceptibly drift apart once more, though the planets remain linked through different NASA exploration projects. Maybe one day they will also have the same open-source software used to help plumb their depths to uncover their most mysterious and hidden secrets.

John Breeden II is an award-winning journalist and reviewer with over 20 years of experience covering technology. He is the CEO of the Tech Writers Bureau, a group that creates technological thought leadership content for organizations of all sizes. Twitter: @LabGuys