Elon Musk’s SpaceX uses Linux operating system in Starlink satellite system


Musk’s SpaceX Starlink satellites have 4,000 Linux systems, with the constellation currently running more than 30,000 Linux nodes

Linux has reached the skies. The operating system that emerged out of a need to have an open-source alternative to Microsoft’s closed Windows OS is reaching for the skies. In an AMA on Reddit,  the company’s director of Starlink software Matt Monson stated that SpaceX’s Starlink satellite constellation runs entirely on Linux.

SpaceX is Elon Musk’s dream project and has been making news recently. Last week SpaceX rocket ship was used to send NASA astronauts to space from American soil for the first time in a decade. Nasa had retired the space shuttle in 2011 and relied on Russian spaceships launched from Kazakhstan to take U.S. astronauts to and from the space station. Musk is dreaming of sending humans to Mars by 2030.

Another of Musk’s dream is the SpaceX Starlink satellite constellation.  The Starlink satellite plans to launch a total of 800 small satellites into space to bring cheaper and high latency Internet connection to us. SpaceX launched 60 Starlink satellites into low Earth orbit last week to kickstart the Starlink constellation project. Come August 2020 and we will have Elon Musk’s Starlink low-latency, high-bandwidth satellite internet service will be available to customers.

Now comes the revelation that all the 400 satellites that SpaceX has launched for the Sartlink run on Linux operating system. Answering the Redditor, Monson said that the satellites run on Linux nodes and it requires to be updated about once a week. The Starlink’s ground-based systems are updated twice or more per week.

“Small improvements in the software can have a huge impact on the quality of service we provide and the number of people we can serve,” he said.

According to Monson, each launch of 60 satellites contains more than 4,000 Linux systems, with the constellation currently running more than 30,000 Linux nodes and more than 6,000 microcontrollers.  Monson told the AMA readers that the satellites function like Linux-based servers.

For Starlink, we need to think of our satellites more like servers in a data center than special one-of-a-kind vehicles. This is a hugely powerful change in how we think about space vehicles, and is absolutely critical to being able to iterate quickly on our system.

Monson in Reddit AMA

Monson also told Redditors that Starlin, Falcon rockets and Dragon Capsules share the Linux platform infrastructure between them. He gave the example of the displays used in the Crew Dragon manned capsule which are also the basis of the user interface for the first couple of Starlink satellites.

“It’s grown a ton since then, but it was awesome to see Bob and Doug using something that somehow felt familiar to us too,” Monson said. He said the satellites are currently generating more than 5 TB of data per day, with SpaceX working on reducing the amount of data each device sends as it scales up the number of satellites in the system.

“As far as analysis goes, doing the detection of problems onboard is one of the best ways to reduce how much telemetry we need to send and store (only send it when it’s interesting),” Monson said.

When a Redditor asked him about the security of this Linux based system, Monson said they use end-to-end encryption can only run software signed by SpaceX itself, so that “even if an attacker breaks in, they won’t be able to gain a permanent foothold”.  He added that the constellation and ground-based data centers are hardened to keep vulnerabilities from giving an attacker broad access across systems.

It seems that Linux is going everywhere. Satya Nadella was right in making Microsoft embrace open source and Linux after years of treating it like cancer.


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"The Internet is the first thing that humanity has built that humanity doesn't understand, the largest experiment in anarchy that we have ever had." Eric Schmidt

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