Computer system behind Chinese space missions –
The core of the Kylin computer system has been kept a national secret and its use in the country’s space program.
Whether it’s China’s Mars rover, its Earth-orbiting space station, or its lunar probe bringing back lunar samples, there’s a little-known system behind it all. The core of the Kylin computer operating system has been kept a national secret and its use in the country’s space program has only just been officially confirmed.
Its main codes were written by Chinese military researchers, according to developer China Electronics Corporation (CEC), but it also includes elements of Unix-like FreeBSD software, parts of Linux and a Windows-like user interface. It is a hybrid, like the mythical qilin dragon beast it is named after. Speaking to state media over the weekend, members of Kylin’s development team revealed the operating system’s role in these missions, coordinating communication between the AI software, human ground controllers and all hardware aboard the spacecraft.
Until a decade ago, China, like most other countries, relied on Linux and Windows to drive its space programs, according to an article published last year in the national journal Space Industry Management. . Beginning in 2008, Chinese space authorities began replacing Western software and hardware in satellites and spacecraft. The process accelerated after the revelations of Edward Snowden in 2013 on piracy activities in the United States. Kylin was one of the results – along with the Zhanxing, or Warring Star, system developed by China’s military space force, according to the newspaper.
Dan Jianqun, lead scientist of the CEC’s Kylin project, said China had no choice but to develop its operating system. “Use other people’s systems, to quote President Xi [Jinping], it’s like building a house on someone else’s land. It can be big and beautiful, but it can also be destroyed overnight,” he said in an interview with state television on Sunday. The transition from Western software to homemade software has been fraught with challenges, according to some of the software engineers involved.
Liu Jun, software engineer of the Kylin team, said space missions not only require high security, but also reliability and performance. Liu said Kylin was originally developed for ground computers. To go into space, processing times for some tasks had to be reduced to less than a third, he told state television. “It was as difficult as compressing a packet of cookies into a few grams without losing nutrients,” Liu said.
The space mission also sometimes required the operating system to perform a specific task without being distracted by lower priorities, and a lot of code was written to meet those needs, Liu said. Kylin’s first tests were demanding. No one had landed on the other side of the moon. And no country had put a rover on Mars without fail. Liu Hongyu, another Kylin engineer, said the team was under extreme stress when these missions reached a critical stage.
“We were just praying. When the spacecraft landed, the whole building shook with applause,” he said. Kylin is now the most used operating system by the Chinese government and military, according to previous state media reports. When its first version was released in 2006, the system was widely criticized for its poor user experience and lack of compatible software. But Kylin worked well with locally developed computer chips such as the Loongson CPU.
As the Chinese government began replacing Intel chips and Windows systems in the military, government, banking, and other sensitive sectors, Kylin’s user base grew rapidly. But some challenges remained. One of the problems was the adaptability of the material. China still used a lot of western scientific equipment and many devices were not compatible with Kylin.
Also, most Kylin system software is displayed in Chinese. Any foreign astronaut considering accepting China’s offer to visit its space station will need to learn some Chinese or they will be confused by the characters on the screen of every Kylin device, including tablets.
This news was originally published on The Star.