Just last year, NASA took its first steps towards a new frontier—not space, but open source. Today, NASA is more involved with open source than ever before. It is even using the power of open source to power its Mars VR project, a huge step both for the organization and the open source community.

NASA software engineer Parker Abercrombie is using open source to create a virtual workspace. The benefit of this open source project is that scientists and engineers can visit Mars in a virtual reality environment. While NASA hasn’t yet sent a manned mission to Mars, the virtual environment Abercrombie has made possible using open source is the next best thing.

The project, called OnSight, enables scientists and engineers to work on Mars using what is known as “mixed reality.” Special headsets equipped with the OnSight software download the latest 3D maps of Mars’ terrain, giving the user a first-person view of the planet, much as if they had landed in a spaceship and were exploring on the ground.

To make this happen, 3D reconstructions of the terrain are produced by the Curiosity rover and sent back to Earth daily. Software engineers produced a custom image processing method that produces these images and constantly updates and produces new reconstructions as new information becomes available.

This exciting project was created using open source tools like MeshLab and Blender, which helps the developers create the 3D models used in the virtual environment. The pipeline that processes the terrain images was also implemented using open source tools and frameworks, as was the cloud build system that enables the headsets to receive continually updated images and information.

When creating OnSight, Abercrombie and his team recognized that the most appropriate tools for the job were open source, pointing to the future of open source at NASA and in space exploration at large.