Linux for the International Space Station Program

An overview of two applications for spacecraft and why these applications are being run on Linux.

The first element of the International Space Station (ISS) has already been launched from Baikonur, Russia. ISS is the biggest civilian endeavor ever entrusted to human science and technology. Thousands of software code lines are being, and will be, written for the station, on-ground and on-board. ISS represents a synergy among many space agencies and companies around the globe, including European Space Agency (ESA). ESA has been developing several prototype systems which will pave the technology road for the European contributions to the ISS program. Among others, ESA has chosen Linux as the operating system for two software products which will control the rendezvous and docking operations for a servicing spacecraft called ATV. This article presents an overview of these products, explaining why they run on Linux, the advantages and disadvantages of doing so and the future of Linux in the space industry.

The Automatic Transfer Vehicle

The ESA Automatic Transfer Vehicle (ATV) is an unmanned spacecraft planned to perform regular re-boosting and re-fueling of the International Space Station. Other ATV missions will comprise payload supply and payload removal from the ISS. The ATV is an ongoing project approved in October 1995 by the Council of the European Space Agency. ATV is scheduled to be launched for the first time by an Ariane 5 rocket from Kourou, French Guyana in February 2003.

Figure 1. ATV Spacecraft

In its early configuration, ATV was designed as a cylindrical shaped spacecraft containing a cargo module (pressurized or unpressurized), a docking port and a propulsion module. Lately, ATV was modified with four solar panels added (see Figure 1).

The ATV mission profile establishes docking with the ISS in the Russian segment of the station. Rendezvous operations start at about 20km behind the station. This means that ATV will fly behind and faster than ISS, in order to catch up to the docking port of the station. The problem of the space rendezvous is the mating of two spacecraft in orbit—a small active chaser spacecraft (ATV) and a big target (ISS).

Although spacecraft rendezvous and docking may look simple, they are not. The mathematical equations governing the relative movement between chaser and target are rather complex. The onboard control of the rendezvous operations is to a large extent automatic, but not fully autonomous. Some control tasks are done from the ground control center and others onboard the station. Although the ATV onboard computer is fault tolerant, the complexity of the mission does not allow the prevention of and recovery all possible types of mission failures. Special features of the onboard system would allow detecting and forecasting failures, isolating them and proposing and executing recovery actions, but only for those types of contingencies anticipated during system design. The failure detection and recovery features are linked to both mission safety and mission success.

Linux to the Rescue

To overcome these and other issues, ESA built two products: GOAS and RACSI. GOAS is the Ground Operator Assistant System for the rendezvous operations of ATV. Used on ground, GOAS is a software tool to monitor the ATV mission and intervene in case of a problem. GOAS provides complex command and control capabilities to replan the entire mission if necessary. RACSI is the remote ATV control at ISS. RACSI is a laptop computer running a software package operated by an astronaut onboard the station. RACSI double monitors and checks the ATV mission and provides two simple command capabilities: temporarily interrupt the mission or command a collision-avoidance maneuver.

Currently, both the GOAS and RACSI developments run under Linux. Although GOAS was developed on Solaris (using versions 1 and 2), the software was ported to Linux without difficulties. RACSI was originally programmed entirely under Linux. For both systems, Linux was chosen as the underlying operating system because it provides four basic features required by up-to-date space applications: reliability, performance, portability and affordability. Reliability is crucial to space applications. The feature of reliability is guaranteed by the robustness of Linux: both applications run dozens of processes concurrently, using extensively shared memories and semaphores. The software never crashes or misbehaves, despite the fact that both systems were designed to run nonstop for weeks or even months.

Performance is the definitive factor in measuring real-time critical software. Although Linux is not used in real-time mode (the RT-Linux module is not loaded), the applications run in real time. That is, they receive data from the spacecraft, display it and send it back to the satellite, all in real time. Everything runs within the specified communications rate between craft.

Software portability is of vital importance for upgrades and applications enhancement. Portability among UNIX flavors can be done quickly, preserving expandability and keeping manpower costs down. This is not true for other non-UNIX operating systems. In addition, Linux is available for an enormous range of hardware platforms, making the change between platforms as simple as recompiling (in most cases).

Nowadays, space applications often lack the funds needed to buy costly licenses. Linux is a zero-cost operating system, which provides true affordability. It can be copied as many times as desired, keeping license costs and royalties low. This is true not only for the operating system but also for the tools (compilers, debuggers, editors, development environments, etc.) which come with it.

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Are you serious?

Anonymous's picture

Linux was chosen for reliability, performance, portability and cost, the author states. Application's reliability is far more important than OS reliability in this case, even a perfect OS does not protect an application for failing in its own merit. Performance, define performance, all applications have a SLA, does the author mean to imply the only OS capable of supporting these applications SLA is Linux? On what hardware? He mentions Pentium Pro, was that a requirement?

Portability I fail again to see how is this important since this is a custom application for a highly customized piece of equipment and you can basically do not get any benefit by moving the application to some other platform. Au contraire, it adds to costs, which the author seems to imply was one of the criteria Linux was chosen after all, and introduces risk.

As for about the cost, the argument is laughable. We are talking of a project that has tens of millions of euros (dollars) budget, at least, saying that they saved a the cost of a few licenses for a commercial OS is like saying hey I had just water after those 4 megaburgers 'cause I am cutting on calories...

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