(Source: Inazuma)
Linux operating system is expected to improve security, stability

Microsoft Corp.'s (MSFT) Windows XP is among the company's most beloved products. Generally lauded for its stability, compatibility, and security since Service Pack 3 rolled out, the aging operating system has still been hanging around in many enterprise deployments -- including the International Space Station (ISS).  But the ISS and others have found out the hard way of late that slower patching and a phase-out of support have left the once unbeatable OS a major security risk.

I. Phasing Out XP, Moving to the Penguin

Keith Chuvala of United Space Alliance, a contractor who handles much of the ISS operations, decided enough is enough after a 2008 security breach; he's switching the "dozens of laptops" aboard the ISS to Debian 6, a Linux operating system.

Linux has been used on the ISS systems since its 1998 launch (see this 2001 article [PDF] in Linux Magazine, for example) and in NASA ground system since its inception. However, most laptops used aboard the station for day-to-day activities like viewing stock inventory, controlling scientific experiments, or checking the current station location -- a cluster dubbed "OpsLAN" -- ran Windows.

But NASA received a wakeup call in 2008 when a Russian cosmonaut inadvertently brought a W32.Gammima.AG worm aboard his Windows laptop, which infected the other laptops onboard, requiring painstaking cleanup.  While Linux machines are not immune to worms and other malware, their small market share and quick patching (thanks to the open source community) have made Linux distributions more secure than their Windows counterparts from a practical perspective.

ISS Crew LaptopAn ISS crew member mans one of the station's laptops. [Image Source: NASA]

Mr. Chuvala comments, "We migrated key functions from Windows to Linux because we needed an operating system that was stable and reliable – one that would give us in-house control. So if we needed to patch, adjust or adapt, we could."

He's getting help for the project from the Linux Foundation, a non-profit consortium founded in 2007 by the merger of two key Linux evangelist groups.  The Linux Foundation -- whose mission is to promote the U.S. of Linux worldwide -- is training engineers at space agencies and potential astronauts on the new operating system and how to develop for it.

Dominic Duval, the Director of Enterprise Training, spearheaded the training effort, pairing engineers at The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and other partner space agencies with qualified Linux professionals skilled in teaching OS basics.  He designed two courses for the trainees -- Introduction to Linux for Developers and Developing Applications For Linux.

II. Debian is the Distribution Du Jour

The ISS's systems run mostly Scientific Linux -- a distribution developed by Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) -- and RedHat Enterprise Linux, developed by Red Hat, Inc. (RHT).  But the Linux Foundation steered Mr. Chuvula and NASA towards yet another distribution for the day-to-day machines -- Debian.

The agency decided on adopting (for now) Debian 6, a version released in Feb. 2011.  Debian 7 was just released days ago, and will likely eventually be rolled out as well.  Debian is licensed under the GNU General Public License (GPL), a permissive open-source license.

ISS Debian
The ISS laptops will run Debian 6, a popular Linux distribution.

Debian relies on donations to develop, improve, and fix flaws in its codebase of over 320 million lines of code.  The project boasts over 3,000 volunteers.  The cost of Debian 5, had it been developed for-profit by salaried employees, is estimated [PDF] in a recent academic analysis to have been $8B USD.

In terms of reception, Debian is often listed as second to only Ubuntu in popularity.  While it's difficult to estimate the exact number of Debian users, security listings in the operating system show at least 1.9 million (active) unique IPs.

II. Robonaut 2 Gets an Upgrade; Scientist Deal With a Spill

In related news Robonaut 2 -- a Linux-powered semi-autonomous humanoid robot aboard the ISS -- will soon get an upgrade, expanding its usefulness.  Currently just a torso, head, and arms (with articulated "fingers"); the robot will receive legs and an expanded battery pack later this year.

The control software for the robot is Ubuntu, developed by Canonical.  It's unclear what distribution the robot itself runs, but it runs a variety of embedded Linux.  Launched in 2011 in the final mission of the Space Shuttle Discovery, the robot will soon be able to assist astronauts aboard the ISS with menial tasks (vacuuming, changing filters), as well as dangerous space-walk repairs.

The ISS is also grappling a leaking in its ammonia-based cooling system.  While the leak poses "no danger" in an immediate sense to crew, the leak threatens to shut down one of the solar panels powering the station's electronics.

ISS wing
One of the ISS's eight 230-foot dual-wings has a leaking cooling system and is being shut down. [Image Source: NASA]

As the solar arrays have independent cooling loops, the crew is phasing out the faulty loop and rerouting the other loops to stand in for its power source.  The same array underwent troubleshooting in a Nov. 2012 spacewalk.  It's unclear if that attempt failed to fully fix the leak, or if a new leak occurred.

The ISS's solar array is the largest [PDF] photovoltaic (PV) array ever deployed in space.  Its advanced cells must be kept under 130 degrees Celsius, a daunting challenge given that the eight wings (consisting of 33,000 cells each) stretch over approximately an acre of space and produce between 75 and 90 kilowatts on an average day in space.  That many kilowatts makes for a lot of waste heat, given that the even these extremely efficient cells are only around 25 percent efficient.

Sources: The Linux Foundation, NASA

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