Op-ed | Open Source: A New Direction for Space

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Open source is software or hardware universally accessible and intended to be freely used, shared and improved. The basic idea is that the root code or blueprints of a device or software is released to the world for the community to use, modify and upgrade. This concept has some very big potential upsides for any industry, namely customization, quick updates and a large community for documentation and add-on products.

Open source products are having a profound impact on the world today. Websites such as Wikipedia that use open content have largely replaced traditional encyclopedias. There is a good chance you are reading this content on an open source browser such as Mozilla or on an open source operating system such as Android or Linux. And Arduino is one example of an open source hardware product that has been very successful.

So what does this have to do with space?

The impact on space exploration is in two main places: the use of open source technology and the development of open source systems.

PhoneSat 1.0
PhoneSat 1.0 during a high-altitude balloon test. Credit: NASA Ames Research Center

Open source software and hardware are rapidly decreasing the cost required to get systems up and running. A great example of this is NASA’s PhoneSat bus, which used commercial off-the-shelf parts and the Android operating system and reportedly cost only $3,500 to produce. With the use of open source software to design components and open source hardware to test components, the price of system development has the potential to be accessible to many hobbyists and small businesses.

The most important open source documentation in aerospace is probably the Defense Technical Information Center and the NASA Technical Reports Server. While not traditionally thought of as open source, many of the older technical reports (roughly pre-1980) have detailed documentation including drawings, test plans and results sufficient to duplicate the devices and test results, and are in the public domain. NASA also has released a variety of open source software packages on topics ranging from orbit determination to robot vision.

Outside of NASA, various cubesats also use the open source philosophy in their implementation; for example, ArduSat runs various users’ Arduino programs on the spacecraft. The amateur rocketry community has also adopted open source to some level with various projects available online.

While open source hardware is in its infancy, there is good reason to believe it will continue to grow, mainly due to the rise of three phenomena:

  • Easy-to-use microcontrollers.
  • 3-D printing.
  • Crowdsourced funding.

Microcontrollers, specifically easy-to-use packages such as Arduino, Edison and BeagleBoard, allow for the quick and easy integration of electronics with any project. With these boards, the barrier to entry for sensing and actuation is extremely low and there is a large base of community support.

First 3-D printed object on ISS
International Space Station Commander Barry “Butch” Wilmore holds up the first object made in space with a 3-D printer made by the company Made in Space. Credit: NASA

3-D printing can produce complicated components for a relatively low cost and almost no tooling costs. Complicated valve casings, injector designs, small structural mounts and liquid rocket chambers can be made without precision machining, castings or welding and brazing. This means that these parts can be built by anyone with the capability to design them without having to tool up complicated manufacturing technology.

Crowdsourcing, as brought forward by Kickstarter, is a powerful method of funding projects without a traditional investor profit motive. It allows large numbers of people to contribute small amounts of money to fund ambitious, but not lucrative, products directly. The previously mentioned ArduSat was funded on Kickstarter and a number of open source 3-D printers have also been funded by crowdsourcing.

There are some forces retarding open source space projects, mainly technical competency and legal issues. Open source projects require a large base of technically competent users to design and debug the product. The aerospace community is relatively small, and most people have a limited ability to do side work. This limits the efforts to amateurs unless corporations or government agencies decide to openly release work.

In addition, certain aspects of space exploration, such as radiation hardening, large-scale rocket testing and deep vacuums, are beyond the capability of the vast majority of amateurs, further limiting the field of the community.

Legal issues are a large problem in the aerospace community due to export control laws. Designed to provide national security by stopping the export of sensitive weapons and technology, in the United States these laws cover a large variety of space-related technology, including all rockets with the exception of wood and plastic “hobby” launchers.

In addition to broad regulatory scope, a large number of U.S. agencies are involved in the legislation, including the State Department with its International Traffic in Arms Regulations, Commerce with its Export Administration Regulations, and Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.

Most of this legislation, at least in the United States, has clauses that allow for publicly available or public domain data to be freely disseminated. However, even these public domain exclusions are not all-encompassing and items such as bioagents, toxins and encrypted software are still restricted even if data exist in the public domain. While these public domain clauses offer hope for open source aerospace projects, it is a distant hope. There is limited, or no, case history involving open source aerospace projects and as such it is questionable how the various regulatory agencies will judge and respond to such projects.

Open source hardware and software are part of the future of technology and will continue to play a part in space exploration. The use of available open source technology will enable a broader range of people to build, test and fly equipment in space. The main question is if the space community can play a role in generating open source hardware and software and give back to a growing community of technology enthusiasts.

 

Lloyd Droppers is a project manager at Project Earendel, an open source suborbital rocket venture, and previously was at Ventions LLC.