Ingenuity: A Helicopter Flies on Mars!

ZDNet has a story that really takes us into the future. You could say, it reminds us that the future is here. ZDNet discusses how a small NASA helicopter flew on Mars using open source software! The software used was Linux and a program built by NASA based on the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s (JPL)’s open-source framework. 

The story behind this amazing feat of human ingenuity, is a treat. The helicopter is the first powered aircraft to fly on Mars, or, indeed, another planet. There were so many technical challenges involved in this feat. The first was based on the geophysical differences between earth and Mars. On the one hand, it’s easier to fly on Mars because it’s gravity is a third of earth’s. However, it’s atmosphere is much less dense. Its density is a hundredth of earth’s. 

The helicopter is named Ingenuity, and that sums up how marvellous it is. It went to Mars as part of the Perseverance mission. However, it’s not there to support that mission. Perseverance is dedicated to searching for signs of life on Mars and collecting dirt and rock samples for future missions who will return them to earth. Ingenuity’s mission is different. It’s there to show that commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) open-source software (and hardware) can be used to fly on Mars. COTS are canned software that the buyer can adapt to suit their ends. This is done rather than commissioning bespoke software solutions. 

Till now, it had not been thought possible to use COTS to fly powered aircraft on another planet. The Ingenuity crew worked with GitHub’s chief executive officer (CEO), Nat Friedman and his team to see just how many developers were involved in the code. They found that nearly 12,000 developers contributed to the project through GitHub. What’s even more fascinating is that, as with taking the first image of a black hole, the majority of these developers are not aware that they contributed to developing ingenuity’s code. 

To thank these developers, GitHub placed a Mars 2020 Helicopter Mission badge on the profiles of every GitHub developer involved in the project at any stage of the project or with any of the libraries used

From ingenious powered aircraft to incredible prosthodontics, the advances in technology of the modern age are truly incredible. 

Some of the contributors are already famous. Linux Torvalds, for instance, is the creator of Linux. Many more are unsung heroes, coding under obscurity, working purely for the love of developing novel coding solutions and helpful libraries. This is why GitHub felt it so important to recognize their achievements and shine a light on just how vital their work is. This is true not only within the context of Ingenuity’s triumph, but in the broader context of their contribution to technology. 

How did Ingenuity get to 12,000 developers as contributors? Isaac Newton, the great physicist, once said that he saw further than physicists before him because he “stood on the shoulders of giants”. Well, each dependency has contributors and each project is built on at most 10 dependencies. This means that a project is dependent on the work of a hierarchy of contributors. The bigger the project, the more people involved. Knowledge is a communal creation. Even in a small way, each of those 12,000 developers played their part in this incredible project.