It’s a PC user’s nightmare: You’re almost done with a lengthy e-mail, or about to finish a report at the office, and the computer crashes for no apparent reason. It tries to restart but never quite finishes booting. Then it crashes again. And again. Getting caught in such a loop is frustrating enough on Earth. But imagine what it’s like when the computer is more than 100 million miles away on Mars. That’s what mission controllers faced when the Mars rover Spirit stopped communicating last month. Ultimately, the fix that saved Spirit wasn’t that different from how a PC would be repaired on Earth. It’s just that the folks who have their hardware on Mars — and the eyes of the world on them — are better prepared for disaster. The operating system, VxWorks, has its roots in software developed to help Francis Ford Coppola gain more control over a film editing system. But the developers, David Wilner and Jerry Fiddler, saw a greater potential and eventually formed Wind River, named for the mountains in Wyoming. VxWorks became a formal product in 1987. The operating system is embedded in systems that control jetliners and atomic colliders, anti-lock braking systems in cars and even heart pacemakers. It’s also been used successfully in the Mars Pathfinder lander, Mars Odyssey orbiter and Stardust comet probe. Full Story
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