the computer system behind China’s space missions


Whatever The Chinese rover on Mars, his space station in orbit around the Earth or its lunar probe bringing back lunar samples, a little-known system is behind it all.

The kernel of the Kylin computer operating system has been kept as a national secret and its use in the country space program has just been officially confirmed.

Its main code was 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.

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It’s a hybrid, like the mythical qilin dragon beast whose name it bears.

Speaking to state media over the weekend, members of Kylin’s development team revealed the role the operating system plays in these missions, coordinating communication between artificial intelligence software, human ground controllers and all equipment 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 in a national journal. Space industry management Last year.

From 2008, Chinese space authorities began to replace Western software and hardware in satellites and spacecraft. The process accelerated after Edward Snowden’s revelations in 2013 about US hacking activity.

Kylin was one of the results – along with the Zhanxing, or Warring Star, system developed by the Chinese military space force, according to the newspaper.

Dan Jianqun, a senior scientist on CEC’s Kylin Project, said China had no choice but to develop its operating system.

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“Using 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 home software has been fraught with challenges, according to some of the software engineers involved.

Liu Jun, a software engineer for the Kylin team, said that space missions required not only high security, but also reliability and performance.

The Kylin OS system is used in the Chinese space program. Photo: video surveillance

Liu said Kylin was originally developed for ground computers. To get into space, the processing times for some tasks had to be cut 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 any nutrition,” Liu said.

Sometimes the space mission also 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 engineer from Kylin, 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 was shaken with applause, ”he said.

Kylin is now the most widely 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 received a lot of criticism for its poor user experience and lack of compatible software.

But Kylin performed well with nationally developed computer chips such as the Loongson processor.

As the Chinese government began to replace Intel chips and Windows systems in the military, government, banking, and other sensitive industries, Kylin’s user base grew rapidly.

But some challenges remained.

One of the problems was the adaptability of the hardware. China still used a lot of Western science equipment, and many devices were incompatible with Kylin.

In addition, most of the software in the Kylin system is displayed in Chinese.

Any foreign astronaut who is considering accepting China’s offer to visit their space station will have to learn a bit of Chinese, otherwise they will be confused by the characters on the screen of every Kylin device, including tablets.

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This article From Mars to the Moon: the computer system behind China’s space missions first appeared on South China Morning Post

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Gordon K. Morehouse