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Since humans first achieved successful spaceflight in the mid-20th century, the endeavor has been dominated by at first the world powers – largely with military applications – followed by a host of other nations' governments and government sponsored scientific activity. Aerospace and telecommunications corporations, both state-owned and private, took to the black skies above our planet in search of profits, relaying the collective voice of human civilization around the planet, and lofting payloads for governments posturing against one another with the prying eyes of their spy satellites.
Nearing the end of the century, after the “Space Race” had ran its course, and commerce involving expensive space-based investments and infrastructure became more commonplace, an old idea from the pre-spaceflight era – from the aspirations of spaceflight pioneers and dreamers – came closer to reality. That aspiration was the accessibility of space to the average human on Earth, the ability to readily travel among the planets and bounce radio waves to another world from your backyard.
The late 20th and early 21st centuries have seen the rise of low-cost, high-technology products, enabling many humans to own and operate machines vastly superior to anything that existed half a century earlier, at accessible costs. Amateur rocket scientists and hackers have turned these technologies to the stars, creating a variety of open source tools to enable more people to participate in the excitement of spaceflight. Those selected for discussion below are only a subset of the many projects that individuals and communities around the world are pursuing, working towards their goal of open sourcing the technologies that enable humans to explore the cosmos.
The shipyard adjacent to the frigid water of Øresund lies on the shoreline industrial outskirts of Copenhagen. Within a rusty metal hangar a group of engineers, technologists and hackers work towards and open source solution to manned spaceflight. Self-proclaimed as the world's only amateur space program, Copenhagen Suborbitals [http://copenhagensuborbitals.com] is leveraging the expertise, labor and funding of volunteer aerospace engineers, manufacturing professionals and private donors to design, build and fly a manned-spaceflight vehicle. More specifically, this rocket they are working on developing has the stated goal of flying a single person capsule on a sub-orbital trajectory to above the internationally recognized boundary of space, the Kármán line, 100km from Earth's surface, and safely returning the amateur astronaut to the ground.
Three years after its founding in 2008, CS flew their first test launch of the nearly 10 meter tall HEAT-1X [http://copenhagensuborbitals.com//wp_blog/wp_content/uploads/2013/11/HEAT1X_flight.pdf] rocket in 2011. Power by a hybrid solid fuel / liquid oxidizer rocket motor, the rocket lofted a prototype capsule, the Tycho Brahe with crew of one mass simulator dummy. This first flight ended prematurely when it veered from course and crashed into the ocean, but provided CS with valuable data for continued development of their launch technologies. CS successfully launched the smaller (5 m), two stage rocket, Smaragd in July of 2012 to an altitude of approximately 20 km to test long range communications, GPS and avionics.
As part of their open source architecture, the rocket avionics uses a modified Arduino that they dubbed the Csduino. This ruggedized and customized electronics suite includes features such as radiation-hardening for space environments, NAND-Flash memory and transistor driver circuits.
In June 2013 the Sapphire [http://copenhagensuborbitals.com//wp_blog/wp_content/uploads/2013/11/Sapphire-specs.pdf] rocket lifted off from CS's floating launch platform. While smaller than both the HEAT-1X and Smaragd, this rocket hosted advanced navigation avionics and thrust vectoring systems for maintaining a precise trajectory. Exceeding the speed of sound, the rocket reached an altitude of over 8 km, less than 100m from its desired target. Proving this guidance and navigation system, CS hopes to implement these on a larger followup test of the HEAT-2X rocket and Tycho Deep Space capsule to carry a human to the edge of space.
Speeding around Earth, clouds of tiny satellites relay communications and data to and from operators all over the planet. Communicating via roof-top tracking antennas or over internet relayed channels to smart phones and laptops, people all over the world operate these orbital assets for scientific and commercial applications, selling data, bandwidth usage and system operating time. This is the vision for a near future with “democratized” space architecture led by the advent of low-cost satellites, allowing a whole new host of people and organizations to gain a stake in space assets without the massive costs currently associated with satellite operations.
Now a standard used in industry, government and academia, the CubeSat [http://www.cubesat.org/] design was developed by faculty and students of California Polytechnic State University and Stanford University for use in academic research projects. Each 10x10x10 cm cube constitutes “one unit” (1U) in cubesat jargon. Larger cubesats consist of multiples of this basic building block unit, often in 2U and 3U varieties ,but even up to larger 6U or 12U satellites.
Cubesats are currently carried as secondary payloads on a launch vehicle, housed with a P-POD (Poly-PicoSatellite Orbital Deployer) capable of deploying several cubesats at once once orbit is reached. The International Space Station hosts its own P-POD launcher for deploying satellites from the orbital outpost by its astronaut crew.
Solar panels often cover the six faces of a cubesat, though some sport unfolding panels that increase the energy gathering surface area. Folding antennas protrude from the cube upon deployment, often made of strips of metal measuring tape. Communications systems usually transmit over amateur radio frequencies, relying on sensitive ground-segment infrastructure to receive the faint signals from the small satellites.
Because of their off-the shelf components, relatively inexpensive materials and small mass, cubesats offer a vastly cheaper alternative to larger hosted payloads or stand along satellites. These advantages have made the cubesat standard ever more popular as highly capable electronics become cheaper, and more individuals hope to utilize assets in Earth orbit.
Beyond Earth orbit, cubesats may offer a chance to improve the cost-benefit ratio of space and planetary exploration [http://www.nasa.gov/pdf/716078main_Staehle_2011_PhI_CubeSat.pdf]. NASA has plants to send cubesats into Lunar as well as Martian orbit in the near future, hitching rides with larger spacecraft on launch vehicles as secondary payloads. Advances in ion propulsion and solar sail technology might enable these small spacecraft to remain in orbit for longer durations, or shift orbits and maneuver as they make observations of their targets or regions of interest.
Crowd-funded through KickStarter in 2012, over $100,000 was raised in 30 days surpassing the original goal of $35,000. This funded the development of the Arduino derived open source 1U cubesat, ArduSat [https://www.ardusat.com/], including built-in microcontrollers, sensors, power systems and a UHF transceiver.
This improvement upon the original cubesat standard allows students, hackers and innovators familiar with the popular Arduino family of open source microcontrollers to start their spacecraft projects without having to develop the underlying systems to command, control and power the spacecraft. This gives anyone an opportunity to focus on applying cubesats as a stable platform upon which to host scientific experiments or prototype technologies.
As another crowd-funded project, KickSat [https://kicksat.wordpress.com/] launched its 3U cubesat, KickSat-1, in April of 2014. This cubesat was to deploy an array of single circuit-board ChipSats also known as “Sprites” – each hosting its own solar cell and antenna for signal transmission. This proof-of concept mission [https://kicksat.files.wordpress.com/2012/12/20101028r_kicksat-org-anopensourcechipsatdispenserandcitizenspaceexplorationproofofconceptmission_ecss2012_ja.pdf] was to demonstrate the feasibility of “system-on-a-chip” spacecraft as scientific platforms. However, the Sprites failed to deploy from the 3U KickSat-1, which reentered Earth's atmosphere and was destroyed a month later. KickSat-2 is set for launch in the near future as part of a NASA funded program for cubesat development.
Similar to the KickSat concept, Pocket Spacecraft [http://pocketspacecraft.com/] seeks to mass-produce a family of open source, thin-film [http://www.nasa.gov/pdf/716074main_Short_2011_PhI_Printable_Spacecraft.pdf], milligram- to gram-scale spacecraft that can not only orbit, but land on various planets, moons or asteroids of the Solar System. This would enable low-cost exploration, sharing rides with larger government-funded science spacecraft. Their current stated goal is to send a fleet of thousands of Pocket Spacecraft to the Moon within a 3U cubesat, to be deployed upon arrival, as well as dispersing some Pocket Spacraft en route, to fall back to Earth to test landing and retrieval on a planet hosting an atmosphere.
The Spacecraft-On-Demand [https://spacecraftondemand.files.wordpress.com/2012/09/20111003c_spacecraftondemandlongmanuscript.pdf] model they will apply allows anyone to design, program, purchase and coordinate the launch of a spacecraft remotely from an internet browser. The spacecraft will then be delivered to the launch site and launched into the specified orbit or trajectory. Owners of each spacecraft will be able to access received data, and issue commands to be sent to their spacecraft via an online portal or smartphone app, which are then relayed through ground-based transceiver infrastructure.
To complete the space systems loop, ground-based infrastructure is needed for command and control of space assets. Scientific observations are also made from Earth, peering through telescopes at objects in our Solar System or sending radio waves into the depths of the universe. Open-sourcing ground-based systems provides more powerful tools to citizen scientists and amateur satellite operators.
The Satellite Networked Open Ground Station [https://satnogs.org/] (SatNOGS) project is developing an open-source ground station capable of communicating with satellites as well as sub-orbital rockets or high altitude “near-space” balloons. Making up the hardware of the SatNOGS is automatic tracking antenna. Parts of the tracking assembly and tripod stand are 3D-printable and antennas are constructed from PVC piping and thick gauge wire. Ground station electronics are based on open source designs and interface with the SatNOG software packages [https://github.com/satnogs] or with other commonly used open source software tools such as Gpredict [http://gpredict.oz9aec.net/].
A project of the Open Space Agency [http://www.openspaceagency.com/] community, the Ultrascope project seeks to design and construct an open source Automated Robotic Observatory for space observations from Earth. This largely 3D printed telescope is controlled via a smartphone and can be programmed to make autonomous observations and collect data. This project brings down the cost of owning and operating a high-end scientifically useful telescope, allowing more people to participate in citizen science or innovate their own applications for the technology.
RESOURCES FOR SPACE HACKERS
- Spacehack.org [https://spacehack.org/] provides a catalog of active projects, many involving data analysis, education or hosted as competitions.
- SpaceGAMBIT [http://www.spacegambit.org/] connects hacker and hackerspaces with funding and resources for open source aerospace projects including asteroid observation and cataloging, telescope manufacturing, and software hackathons.
- NASA makes available online a huge repository of open source software that it has developed for various applications. These resources can be accessed through the government agency's website [https://code.nasa.gov/] or via GitHub [https://github.com/nasa]. Data for use in other projects as well as associated APIs are also available online [https://data.nasa.gov/].
BY STEVE PESTANA