Real-time operating system crucial for spacecraft landing on Mars

The VxWorks real-time operating system (RTOS) was crucial in helping ensure NASA's InSight Spacecraft made a safe landing on the surface of the planet Mars. See video.

By Wind River November 28, 2018

NASA’s InSight Spacecraft, with the help of its VxWorks real-time operating system (RTOS), from Wind River, made its 12,300mph descent to Mars with a successful landing. With the Insight lander’s avionics system, which is based on VxWorks, InSight will be conducting science operations to gather data on how the planet formed, until Nov. 24, 2020 (which equates to one year and 40 days on Mars, or nearly two Earth years).

InSight was launched on May 5, 2018 by NASA, using a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V 401 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base. The lander completed its 300-million-mile trip at 11:54am PT/2:54pm ET. InSight will be the first mission to directly study the deep interior of a planet other than Earth, providing invaluable data, including information regarding how our own planet has formed.

For more than two decades, Wind River has provided NASA with technology that has taken dozens of unmanned systems to space, playing a critical role in some of the most significant space missions in history, advancing our understanding of the world and beyond.

Entry, descent and landing

In space, the margin for error is essentially zero. Complex automated maneuvers, such as landing a vehicle on a planet’s surface, requires highly accurate positioning, pointing, and synchronization. Systems and devices on the spacecraft must be able to communicate with each other as well as with mission control systems on earth.

Referred to as “the seven minutes of terror,” the entry, descent, and landing (EDL) began about 80 miles (about 128 km) above the surface. Seven minutes later, Insight safely landed on Mars’ surface. Mars’ atmosphere is 100 times thinner than Earth’s, so this guided entry and descent was a challenging engineering feat. While landing, the system had to react with sub-millisecond precision making adjustments based on real-time readings. The RTOS was crucial in helping ensure a safe landing.

Another important milestone for technology

For more than two decades, Wind River has provided NASA with technology that has taken dozens of unmanned systems to space. VxWorks is an RTOS that powers a variety of unmanned and autonomous systems that aim to achieve the highest levels of safety and cost-effectiveness in their pursuit of invaluable data. VxWorks has been used in other critical space missions including the space station resupply vessel Cygnus, Juno, the Mars Curiosity Rover, the Spitzer Space Telescope, and many more.

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– Edited from a Wind River press release by CFE Media. See more Control Engineering HMI and OI stories.