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Has anyone had any experience with successful Linux-based flight computer on Cubesat missions? What Linux hardware was used and what problems did you encounter?

I am contracted to write flight/ground software for another NASA Cubesat mission, and am investigating the options for using a Linux-capable 32 bit processor. The flight computer hardware selection is one of my responsibilities.

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  • $\begingroup$ I seem to recall Henry Spencer was involved with the Canadian satellite MOST and Henry was gung-ho about Linux. But can't seem to find anything to back that up so maybe my memory is imperfect. $\endgroup$ – HopDavid Jan 10 '16 at 3:37
  • $\begingroup$ This is probably off topic, but the ISS switched from Windows to Linux because they wanted a stable OS: linux.com/news/featured-blogs/191-linux-training/… & gizmodo.com/… $\endgroup$ – Fred Jan 10 '16 at 5:27
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I worked directly on several university cubesat missions that ran linux in a semi-custom main flight computer, as well as more traditional embedded software on small processors such as the MSP-430. I don't want to say which university I supported because I no longer work there and I don't know how open they are currently about their system design.

Through interacting with other universities and small businesses I know that there are several fully COTS solutions available that are capable of running linux. Here and here are the two most comprehensive lists I could find of suppliers marketing towards micro/small sat missions. There is also a wide selection of products that not satellite oriented that are equally suitable for running linux and commanding a satellite (such as the Intel Atom, Raspberry Pi, and other computers designed for used in more typical industrial applications).

I can't really address the specifics of hardware selection as it is so tightly coupled with other missions design concerns. What I can say is that running linux has the potential to simplify the software design (increased clock speed, cashe, memory, higher level interfaces like USB, etc.) and shift complexity into interfacing with the hardware and designing for reliability (timing accuracy, linux complexities, multiple threads, etc.). Look for a system that is physically designed to be fault tolerant, or where it can be added on in another way (internal & external watchdog timers).

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Planet Labs has flown more than 100 cubesats using Intel Atom computer-on-modules running Linux (a stock server distribution).

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  • $\begingroup$ Thank you. Does "Planet Labs" sell COTS flight mother-boards for Cubesats? $\endgroup$ – Clark Dailey Jan 11 '16 at 14:07
  • $\begingroup$ No, Planet Labs doesn't sell any hardware. $\endgroup$ – pericynthion Jan 11 '16 at 20:46
  • $\begingroup$ @pericynthion Do you know whether they ran Linux as a the on-board computer or whether it was "only" powering a subsystem? $\endgroup$ – ChrisR Feb 27 '18 at 5:15
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    $\begingroup$ @ChrisR It ran (and I assume still runs) on the main onboard computer. There's also a separate microcontroller that can handle things when the main computer is shut down to save power (e.g. during eclipse or over ocean). That microcontroller ran a bare metal firmware, no O.S. $\endgroup$ – pericynthion Feb 27 '18 at 5:34
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Late answer, which I've posted in some other questions. Tyvak was selling Linux boards for satellites. If the need is still there, it's probably worth talking to them. http://www.tyvak.com/platform/microsat-solutions/

Why them? One of the co-founders of the company, Jordi Puig-Sauri, is one of the co-inventors of the CubeSat standard. It grew out of the work of him and his students at CalPoly SLO.

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Kubos (Disclaimer: I work at Kubos) will send a linux-powered cubesat to orbit in Q3 of 2018. We're using an Innovative Solutions in Space iOBC running our Linux, but we also support Linuxes on Pumpkin's cubesat boards and a few other CPUs. The Pumpkin MBM2 (running a TI OMAP4460/Beaglebone Black CPU) is the only other board commercially available at the present time.

Our Linux source code is available on our GitHub repository.

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  • $\begingroup$ That's cool! (In re open sourcing/GitHub) $\endgroup$ – uhoh Mar 14 '18 at 2:38

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