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CubeSats that confirmed Mars Insight landing feature embedded Linux COM

Nov 29, 2018 — by Eric Brown 1,850 views

Gumstix’s Linux-driven Overo IronStorm-Y module and Caspa VL camera traveled to Mars on a pair of “MarCO” CubeSat satellites, helping to confirm the successful landing of NASA’s Mars Insight lander.

When the Mars Insight lander set down on the Martian surface on Nov. 26, the landing signal that followed the “seven minutes of terror” descent was relayed by two compact, experimental CubeSat satellites. The Mars Cube One (MarCO) satellites are the first CubeSats to have traveled beyond low Earth orbit. They also likely represent the farthest distance a Linux computer has traveled into space. The devices are each equipped with a Linux-driven Overo IronStorm-Y module designed to control an attached Gumstix Caspa VL camera.

MarCO in the lab (left) and artist representation of orbiting MarCO CubeSats
(click images to enlarge)

The MarCO CubeSat’s launched on the same rocket as the Mars Insight lander, but then separated from the spacecraft to fly on their own. Their arrival was timed so that they could fly by the lander during entry, descent, and landing. This enabled a faster response than was possible from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). The experiment demonstrates that future Mars lander interplanetary spacecraft can bring their own low-cost communications data relay option in case a orbiting satellite is unavailable.

Test image of Overo IronStorm-Y driven Caspa VL camera during voyage to Mars (left) and MarCO detail view
(click images to enlarge)

Developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL), the solar-powered MarCO-A and B are six-unit CubeSats, each measuring about the size of a briefcase (36.6 x 24.3 x 11.8 cm). The CubeSat carries a radio capable of receive-only UHF and receive-and-transmit X-band transmissions.

The $185 Overo IronStorm-Y module would appear to act as a companion computer to the main control and navigation board. It’s main function is to control the Caspa VL camera.


The board runs Yocto Project based Linux on an up to 1GHz Cortex-A8 DM3730 SoC from Texas Instruments. This “DaVinci” SoC features a PowerVR SGX530 GPU and a DSP. Like other Y-branded Gumstix modules, the IronStorm-Y offers up to -40 to 85°C support. Other features include 512MB RAM, 1GB flash, a microSD slot, and a TI WiLink 8 WiFi/BT module.

Overo IronStorm-Y (left) and Caspa VL camera

The IronStorm-Y module on the MarCO-B is equipped with Gumstix’s Caspa VL camera add-on, which connects to the module’s 27-pin camera connector. The $75 Caspa VL has an Aptina MT9V032 CMOS imager capable of 752 x 480, 60fps color images.

The experimental MarCO satellites will have no further role in the Insight mission. However, they performed their own communication and in-flight navigation experiments after confirming the Insight landing.

The Mars Insight lander set down on the Elysium Planitia not far from the still operating Curiosity rover and will operate until Nov. 24, 2020. Mars Insight will drill into the Martian soil and deploy two main experiments: the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) and Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3) instruments.

Like NASA’s autonomous Mars rovers, the stationary Mars Insight lander runs on Wind River’s hardened VxWorks RTOS, as reported in this Nov. 26 Wind River blog entry. Linux computers have been frequently used by NASA in ground control systems, and are also used in the Robonaut (R2) robot deployed on the International Space Station.

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