For over 20 years, Wind River® has provided NASA with the most proven software platform to bring dozens of unmanned systems to space, resulting in some of the most significant space missions in history. Wind River is proud to have collaborated with NASA to advance our understanding of the world and beyond. Take a closer look at VxWorks® – the technology that’s powered these incredible missions.
Clementine was designed to test sensors and spacecraft components under extended exposure to the space environment and to make scientific observations of the Moon and the near-Earth asteroid 1620 Geographos. Observations included imaging at various wavelengths, including ultraviolet and infrared, laser ranging altimetry, and charged particle measurements. The VxWorks real-time operating system (RTOS) runs the star tracker camera and image processing algorithms, serving as the “eyes” of the system and allowing it to figure out how it was pointing and where it was going in space.
The Cygnus spacecraft is an unmanned resupply spacecraft developed and tested by Orbital Sciences Corporation as part of NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program and is now part of the Commercial Resupply Services Contract to the ISS Program. The purpose of the spacecraft is to transport supplies to the International Space Station (ISS) following the retirement of the U.S. Space Shuttle. Since the first rendezvous with ISS in September 2013, Cygnus has completed two resupply missions and delivered nearly 6,080 pounds of science, supplies, and spacewalking gear. Additional items included food, life support equipment, thermal control hardware, and photography and video gear. The next resupply launch of Cygnus atop the Orbital Sciences' Antares rocket is currently scheduled for October 2014. A total of eight missions will be flown by Cygnus to the station through 2016. VxWorks runs the main flight computer that controls the avionics in guiding the craft to the ISS.
Having already explored the giant protoplanet Vesta and currently heading to explore dwarf planet Ceres, the Dawn spacecraft is designed to conduct an in-depth and up-close study of these two celestial bodies, believed to have formed early in the history of the solar system. Ceres and Vesta are the two most massive objects in the main asteroid belt, the extensive region between Mars and Jupiter, and also home to many other smaller bodies. Dawn is planned to arrive at Ceres in Spring 2015. The spacecraft computer runs VxWorks, which handles communications with Earth and is vital for other spacecraft systems, ensuring that the ion propulsion system keeps Dawn on course and on schedule, and that all photos and other measurements are made. Thanks to its ion propulsion system, this is the only spacecraft ever capable of orbiting two destinations beyond Earth.
NASA's Deep Impact spacecraft traveled about 268 million miles of deep space in 172 days to reach out and touch comet Tempel 1. Running on VxWorks, Deep Impact successfully completed an intended hyper-speed collision, the first of its kind, with the spacefaring iceberg. It used an updated version of the AutoNav software that operated on Deep Space 1.
The EPOXI mission recycled the Deep Impact spacecraft, which had formerly visited comet Tempel 1, to visit a second comet, Hartley 2. The VxWorks operating system served as the software platform for the flight operations as well as the telescope on board.
Deep Space 1 was a ground-breaking mission in many ways, testing high-risk advanced technologies on an operational interplanetary mission. One of the most important was ion propulsion, which proved itself to be 10 times more efficient than conventional chemical propulsion, allowing much more ambitious missions. Deep Space 1 also was a test-bed for software called AutoNav that enabled it to find its own location in deep space and perform its own course corrections. After the successful primary mission, the spacecraft used its ion drive, AutoNav, and other advanced technologies to visit comet Borrelly, returning NASA's first close-up pictures and other information from a comet. The entire mission was powered by VxWorks.
Galaxy Evolution Explorer was an orbiting space telescope that made many discoveries involving different types of objects that light up our sky with ultraviolet light—catching black holes, spying giant rings of new stars around old, presumed dead galaxies, and independently confirming the nature of dark energy. The mission captured a dazzling collection of snapshots. During the final year of the mission, NASA lent the spacecraft to the California Institute of Technology, which operated it until it was decommissioned in June 2014. Galaxy Evolution Explorer used VxWorks to run its flight computer.
The Genesis mission sent a spacecraft to collect pieces of the Sun, called solar wind, and return them to Earth for detailed analysis. VxWorks was the core operating system for the spacecraft control system, as well as the science package, which opened the lid of its science canister to start catching samples, and later closed and sealed the canister. It then performed something that has never been done before—it flew back by Earth, releasing the sample return capsule to descend with its cached samples.
Gravity Probe B (GP-B), developed by NASA and Stanford University, was a physics mission to confirm Albert Einstein's Theory of Relativity. It used four extremely delicate and sensitive gyroscopes and a telescope. The telescope was used to keep the satellite pointing in the right direction and keep "drift" to a minimum. The gyroscopes were used to measure how much "frame-dragging effect" was exerted by Earth on the spacecraft. Powered by the VxWorks operating system, GP-B performed course adjustments as needed and took measurements of the gyroscopes. VxWorks served as a "lab assistant" in space.
The Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS) is a NASA Small Explorer Mission to observe how solar material moves, gathers energy, and heats up as it travels through the Sun's lower atmosphere. Tracking how material and energy move through this region is a crucial part of understanding the dynamics of the Sun. VxWorks runs the main flight computer, guiding the spacecraft to the Sun.
Kepler is a space telescope designed to survey a portion of the Milky Way galaxy in search of Earth-size planets, including those where liquid water, and possibly life, might exist. VxWorks runs the main flight computer, controlling various avionics packages to keep the craft pointing at the right part of the sky, and returning images from the array of camera chips on the craft. It is critical that this craft remain pointed in the right direction to detect when planets cross in front of stars, which is how we detect which stars have planets, what kind of orbit the planets have, and how large they are.
LADEE was a robotic mission that looped around the moon to study its atmosphere and attempted to solve the puzzle of whether dust actually levitates from the lunar surface. Studying the moon's atmosphere will give scientists insight into the thin atmospheres of other small bodies in the solar system, as well as information about how to establish a long-term human mission in deep space. VxWorks was the operating system that controlled the rocket motors, managed course corrections to keep LADEE's orbit correct, and enabled the spacecraft to return data from the onboard science instruments to Earth. At the end of the mission, the system ensured that the spacecraft successfully crashed into the far side of the Moon, avoiding all historic lunar landing sites. This mission—designed, built, and managed at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California—was originally planned to last 160 days, and managed its fuel resources so well it flew for an additional 28 days.
Spirit, and her identical twin Opportunity, are the epitome of extended missions. There are a variety of science instruments on each rover, some on robotic arms, all of which require management from the main computer running the VxWorks RTOS. For these Mars Exploration Rovers, the computer had the added complexity of landing the craft on the surface of Mars without damaging the rovers, then deploying the rovers to do their main science missions on the Red Planet.
After a long-running extended mission, one of the front wheels malfunctioned, well after the 90-day prime mission. In order to minimize the impact this would have on rover operations, changes were made to Spirit's software to allow it to continue driving—in reverse. Although it was designed to run for 90 days, Spirit's mission lasted six years.
The creativity of the engineers and the flexibility of the operating system also allowed ground controllers to debug problems with the data storage memory that had not been anticipated when the craft was first launched, enabling the team to find a way to recover full operation of the rover.
VxWorks has powered the flight computer that managed everything from getting Opportunity to Mars to moving it across the surface of Mars once it arrived. The Mars Exploration Rovers have had remarkable longevity because their software was upgraded several times. The autonomous navigation package powered by VxWorks was updated and changed, allowing the rovers to analyze pictures taken to identify features and rocks that might be more interesting to the scientists, and also to identify photographs of dust devils, allowing the mission to return more compelling data to the scientists. Opportunity is solar powered and has now run well over 10 years and is still going strong.
NASA is using VxWorks for the most technologically advanced autonomous robotic spacecraft and geologist set ever to be deployed by any space venture. VxWorks powered the craft's controls from the second the rocket left Earth on November 26, 2011, to its successful landing in the Gale Crater on Mars on August 5, 2012, and continues to support Curiosity's exploratory capability throughout the life of the mission. Curiosity is celebrating its second year on Mars, equivalent to one Martian year.
With more than 11 years in orbit and counting, the Mars Odyssey spacecraft has spent more time in orbit around the Red Planet, collecting data on Mars' climate and geology, than any other spacecraft in history. From the moment the rocket launched from Earth until the craft reached orbit around Mars, VxWorks controlled the flight operations. Along with running its primary mission of mapping Mars and monitoring climate, it has acted as a data relay node—receiving data from Mars rovers and other landers, and relaying it to Earth, enabling much more data to be returned than would otherwise have been possible.
The Mars Pathfinder mission was designed to demonstrate a low-cost method for delivering a lander and a free-ranging robotic rover to the surface of Mars. The Mars Pathfinder lander was the heart and brain of the mission, and transported the Sojourner rover safely onto Mars. The computer on Mars Pathfinder controlled the flight to Mars, the landing on Mars, and all the operations on the surface of Mars—including relaying orders to the Sojourner rover and getting science back from the rover. This was the first use of the IBM RAD6000 running VxWorks in deep space. The Mars Pathfinder lander operated so well that NASA decided to double the rate at which it sent data back to Earth. This revealed a bug in the software, which was debugged on Earth, and a software fix was sent up to Mars Pathfinder, enabling it to return more data than had been planned.
The Mars Phoenix Lander was a spacecraft sent to the surface of Mars to search for evidence of past or present microbial life. Powered by VxWorks, the main computer controlled the flight to Mars as well as down to the surface. This lander used retrorockets, built into the craft, to land on the surface. There were a handful of science experiments included on board, designed to analyze the soil for evidence of water and chemistry that might have indicated if Mars could have been habitable at one time. VxWorks controlled aspects of the science performed on Mars.
The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has studied the Red Planet's atmosphere and terrain from orbit since 2006 and also serves as a key data relay station for other Mars missions, including the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity. VxWorks is the software platform that controls the avionics.
NASA's MESSENGER (MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging) probe became the first spacecraft to orbit Mercury in March 2011. It was designed to map the surface composition and study the magnetic field and interior structure of our solar system's innermost planet. The flight computer that has guided its path for more than 10 years runs VxWorks.
Robonaut 2, or R2, which launched to the International Space Station on the space shuttle Discovery as part of the STS-133 mission, is the first dexterous humanoid robot in space. The computing environment chosen for the Robonaut project includes several state-of-the-art technologies. R2 uses the VxWorks RTOS to support varied development activities.
SeaWinds, an instrument that flew on NASA's Quick Scatterometer or QuikScat satellite, measured winds at the surface of the oceans on Earth for a decade following its launch in 1999. SeaWinds leveraged the bring-up methods used by VxWorks to make the computer ready to run the SeaWinds software.
Since 2010, The Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) has been observing the Sun with the goal of understanding the influence of the Sun on Earth and near-Earth space by studying the solar atmosphere on small scales of space and time and in many wavelengths simultaneously. The VxWorks operating system controlled the rocket when getting SDO into its orbit, and keeps SDO communicating with Earth. It relays data from the science packages back to earth.
NASA's Solar Radiation and Climate Experiment (SORCE) satellite has been providing data on the sun's irradiance for over 10 years. SORCE measures electromagnetic radiation produced by the sun and the power per unit area of that energy on the Earth's surface. The mission of SORCE was to collect a continuous record of the sun's total solar irradiance (TSI) and spectral solar irradiance (SSI). The SORCE spacecraft carries four observational instruments: Total Irradiance Monitor (TIM), Solar Stellar Irradiance Comparison Experiment (SOLSTICE), Solar Irradiance Monitor (SIM), and soft X-ray Ultraviolet Photometer System (XPS). SORCE is controlled entirely by VxWorks.
The Spitzer Space Telescope was designed to study the early universe in infrared light. This is the first telescope to see light from a planet outside our solar system. Spitzer has also made important discoveries about comets, stars, exoplanets and distant galaxies. VxWorks is used to control where the telescope is pointing, collect data from the cameras, and return it to Earth.
Stardust was the first spacecraft to return to Earth a cometary sample and extraterrestrial material from outside the orbit of the Moon. The computer on board ran VxWorks on a radiation-hardened RAD6000 32-bit processor card, and helped store data when the spacecraft was unable to communicate with Earth. After Deep Space 1 proved that AutoNav worked, a portion of the software was transmitted to Stardust, which was already in space. Stardust used it on the VxWorks platform to help acquire images of the comet it flew by. Stardust also caught samples of dust from its comet, as well as samples of gas and even dust from outside our solar system.
Stardust-NExT was a follow-on mission that repurposed the Stardust spacecraft for a close re-encounter with comet Tempel 1. VxWorks enabled the software on Stardust to be updated, taking on new missions such as NExT that weren't originally planned.
Launched in 2006, the STEREO (Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory) mission is providing insight on the structure and origins of coronal mass ejections, the violent eruptions of matter from the sun. STEREO's onboard computer systems are based on the Integrated Electronics Module (IEM), a device that combines core avionics in a single box. Powered by VxWorks, the two nearly identical observatories—one ahead of Earth in its orbit, the other trailing—have traced the flow of energy and matter from the Sun to Earth.
The twin Van Allen Probes were launched to help us understand the sun's influence on Earth and near-Earth space by studying the mechanisms that create and drive Earth's Van Allen radiation belts. Powered by VxWorks, the instruments on the Van Allen Probes provide measurements that have been used to validate theories about plasma physics, and have revealed new features and structures in the belts.
VxWorks was chosen for NASA International 01 Space Station's X-38 "lifeboat" spacecraft, an experimental emergency crew return vehicle, or lifeboat, for the International Space Station.
Images and videos courtesy of NASA and NASA/JPL