by Mark Ollig
NASA has discontinued using the Microsoft Windows OS (operating system) in computing devices on board the ISS (International Space Station).
As we know, an operating system is comprised of a set of software programs and utilities which allows a computer to function correctly.
An operating system known as Linux is now being used in the onboard computing devices of the ISS.
The Linux kernel, (which is the core of the Linux OS), was created by Linus Torvalds a little over 20 years ago.
Linux is very similar to Unix, which was developed in 1969 at Bell Laboratories, by the AT&T folks.
However, unlike Unix, Linux is an open-source operating system and is freely distributable to anyone. It can be used in individual computers, and computer servers connecting multiple users.
Linux is compatible with most personal computers and hardware platforms.
The ISS’s onboard computer laptops and mobile devices need a reliable and stable operating system. The astronauts depend upon them for many things, such as knowing their location above the Earth, inventory control, interfacing with the onboard cameras, performing maintenance, and day-to-day operations.
I learned 52 onboard computers are controlling various ISS systems.
The Debian 6 graphical user interface OS version of Linux has been installed in the ISS’s onboard computers.
“We migrated key functions from Windows to Linux because we needed an operating system that was stable and reliable,” said Keith Chuvala of the United Space Alliance, who is contracted by NASA to maintain the Operations Local Area Network (Ops LAN) on board the ISS.
Stable and reliable. I am sure many of us can relate to the frustrations we’ve endured whenever our computer freezes up, or a program stops working.
The training needed to migrate from Microsoft Windows to Linux, was provided by the Linux training staff via the Linux Foundation.
Courses which were “geared specifically for the USA/NASA team’s needs” included two tailor-made sessions: Introduction to Linux for Developers, and Developing Applications for Linux.
In 2008, a computer worm virus called W32.Gammina.AG spread itself across some of the space station’s computers. It originated from a USB-infected flash drive which had been brought from Earth by an astronaut.
Of course, not even Linux operating systems are immune from intentionally malicious software or malware files designed to damage (or even disable) computers and computer systems.
However, since Linux is an open-source OS, software patches and programming code fixes can be quickly uploaded to the ISS for resolving any computing software problems, or programming issues.
Debian for Linux is a free, open-source OS anyone can install and use. For more information, check out their Website at http://www.debian.org.
Linux software is also being used to control the actions of a robot serving on board the ISS.
NASA began serious experiments for using robots in space during the early 1990s.
The first “Robonaut” was built in 1997 by NASA and other partners.
In 2007, General Motors worked with NASA on the next generation of Robonaut called Robonaut 2, or R2.
R2 includes a vision system allowing it to see objects, and very dexterous human-like arms, hands, fingers, and thumbs.
Robonaut 2 is able to manipulate very small items; like the screws holding a panel cover.
The miniature sensors throughout R2’s hands can detect even the smallest changes in pressure.
Robonaut 2, the first robot (torso) in space, has been on board the ISS since its delivery by the crew of the final flight of the space shuttle Discovery, on Feb. 24, 2011.
R2 was “turned-on” and displayed movement for the first time inside the ISS Oct. 13, 2011.
Measuring air-flow from vents inside the Destiny laboratory module connected to the ISS is just one of the duties Robonaut 2 has performed.
The routine tasks R2 can accomplish independently will provide more time for the ISS crew to work on space exploration and scientific experiments.
Later this year, Robonaut 2 will be fitted with an internal battery pack and robotic legs for climbing.
NASA plans include having R2 assisting astronauts working outside the ISS as they add or replace components, conduct experiments, and make needed repairs.
More information about Robonaut 2 can be found at its NASA homepage http://tinyurl.com/R2home.
“The space station, including its large solar arrays, spans the area of a US football field, including the end zones, and weighs 924,739 pounds. The complex now has more livable room than a conventional five-bedroom house, and has two bathrooms, a gymnasium and a 360-degree bay window,” according to NASA’s ISS facts and figures web page.
I’ve imagined taking a trip to the International Space Station and being inside its dome-shaped, Cupola Observation Module while looking down at the Earth through its 360-degree viewing windows.
I hope you can check out this photo of astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson, who appears deep in the thought while looking out the cupola’s windows and gazing at the Earth. It can be seen at http://tinyurl.com/ISSCupolaview.
For more information about the International Space Station, visit http://tinyurl.com/ISSmain.
The Linux Foundation is a nonprofit association dedicated to promoting the development of Linux software. It is located at http://www.linuxfoundation.org.