How Building an Open Source Planetary Rover Can Develop IT Skills

A NASA project aimed at high school students shows step-by-step how to build a planetary rover that works. IT pros can try it, too.

Todd R. Weiss

August 17, 2018

5 Min Read

In May, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory began offering an online open source tutorial to entice high school students to write some code, assemble an assortment of obtainable parts and build their own smaller copy of a working planetary rover similar to the one that has traversed Mars.

The idea, according to NASA and the JPL, is that developing an interest in and pursuing a career in writing software or becoming an electrical engineer, mechanical engineer or robotics expert can start by exposing students to intriguing science opportunities.

The Open Source Rover project includes detailed directions for writing code, acquiring and assembling the needed components, building and testing the rover and other needed advice and expertise to guide students along in their work.

But despite the student focus of the original project, it’s also open to anyone else, including IT pros, channel partners or anyone who wants to try or develop their skills with open source code writing and use.

“I see it as a way for people to get involved and start using open source if they haven’t before,” Michael “Mik” Cox, a data scientist at the JPL in Pasadena, told Channel Futures. “That said, that wasn’t really one of the main motivations for us in putting this project together. We were really looking at it as a way to get people excited about robotics and space exploration, starting with high-schoolers.”


Michael Cox

Michael Cox

All the details are laid out in the plans page which is posted on the GitHub code open source repository, where participants can dive into the project and grow their skills.

Participants can also register to use the discussion and FAQ page, where they can also post to user forums where they can talk with others about their work.

Not Just for Students

The rover project, though it was started to lure high school students to look into science as a career, could definitely be an intriguing exercise for IT pros and channel partners who want to expand their open source skills, said Clyde Seepersad, the general manager of training and certification at The Linux Foundation.

“The Linux Foundation believes strongly that skills are developed by doing rather than by reading, listening and watching alone,” said Seepersad. “The JPL initiative does exactly that, by providing a challenge that is both practical and culturally relevant.”

Activities and projects like the rover project from the JPL help break down artificial labels which separate “hardware people compared to software people,” and allows users to explore the interaction between the two, which can bring about real learning, he said.

“This challenge is a great example of how richly interwoven software can be with the real world,” said Seepersad. “Some concrete learnings I’d expect to see from participation in this activity would be introducing individuals to working with Git, installing open source software such as Android and how to combine hardware and software.”

There’s an added benefit, he said: “It also helps make open source and technology in general fun, which gets more people to try it out and stick to it.”

Charles King, principal analyst with Pund-IT, agreed that high school students are not the only potential participants who could benefit from being involved with the project.

“From the beginning, the success of open source projects has rested on willing collaboration by interested parties,” King told Channel Futures. “In that sense, open source wasn’t especially new or original. Successful collaboration has been around for a long time. Linux extended that model to software development, and a few companies have taken it into new directions, like IBM open sourcing its Power CPU architecture.”

The JPL rover program could push that kind of collaboration even more as new users, including IT pros looking for more experiences with open source, give it a look, he said. “The agency should help pique interest in and even enthusiasm for space travel and related projects” through the rover program, according to King. “Plus, it may see some work and approaches to rover design that never occurred to its own engineers. Those are all good things, so it’s nice to see what many consider a stodgy government agency experiment with new approaches and voluntary partners.”


The JPL Open Source Rover is an open-source, build-it-yourself, scaled-down version of the six-wheel rover design that JPL uses to explore the surface of Mars.

The JPL Open Source Rover is an open-source, build-it-yourself, scaled-down version of the six-wheel rover design that JPL uses to explore the surface of Mars.

In a July 31 post on the JPL’s website, the agency laid out more details of the rover project, including what led NASA to offer a chance to build a small version of the Curiosity rover that landed on and explored Mars on a previous space mission.

After the successful landing of Curiosity on Mars, the JPL built a smaller educational model of the rover, which was called “ROV-E,” as an education tool for high school and university students and for the general public. The rover could be demonstrated in classrooms, museums and at other events to show off robotic principles, according to the post.

“The response to this rover was very positive and often included the question, ‘How can we build one of our own?'”

That’s when JPL engineers went to work designing a model that could be built from commercial off-the-shelf parts for about $2,500, which birthed the open source rover project.

“This is an educational tool for us, it’s an outreach tool,” said the JPL’s Cox. “From there what we’re hoping is that with the open source component, that people will now have this base kit of a rover and they can build and improve them, with additions of new modules like a robotic arm. Our hope is that after they add it they would contribute that back in open source in the hope that others would use as well.”

The project could also be used as a team-building tool, said Cox. “It’s fun, and it looks just like the Mars rover.”

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About the Author(s)

Todd R. Weiss

Todd R. Weiss is an award-winning technology journalist who covers open source and Linux, cloud service providers, cloud computing, virtualization, containers and microservices, mobile devices, security, enterprise applications, enterprise IT, software development and QA, IoT and more. He has worked previously as a staff writer for Computerworld and, covering a wide variety of IT beats. He spends his spare time working on a book about an unheralded member of the 1957 Milwaukee Braves, watching classic Humphrey Bogart movies and collecting toy taxis from around the world.

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