Is open sourcing the next frontier in space exploration?

Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) flew a supercomputer on the ISS to test how terrestrial computing systems could operate in the space environment. (credit: HPE)

Humans are naturally curious. For centuries, we have used that curiosity to collaborate to achieve great things. You only have to look at ancient wonders like the Great Pyramids as well as modern-day engineering marvels like launch vehicles. Such traits help us advance technologically and learn more about the world around and above us.

Innovations in scientific research and data analysis can propel us forward into the cosmos, putting that curiosity and collaboration to even greater use. Open sourcing in particular allows developers, entrepreneurs, and organizations to participate in and contribute to a worldwide community built on knowledge sharing and collaboration, which is essential to space exploration.

While some may believe that other technologies take center stage in the space sector, open sourcing can truly provide us with more innovation and resources that will best help us get to the next frontier in the sector—and the beginning of the open source revolution is already here.

Orbiting with open source

Traditionally, businesses choose to secure the intellectual property of the software they developed to keep their source code a secret. But as anyone in the sector knows, that is rapidly changing with revolutionary open source projects, allowing anyone with skills or expertise, from an individual software developer to leaders of major organizations, to participate and contribute to a global community that shares knowledge and resources. In the past 20 years, the movement has developed into a fully-realized enterprise software sector that, by 2022, is expected to be worth $33 billion.

The popularity of open source is also evident in research, which is making increasing use of high-performance computing systems. Today, every top supercomputer across the globe uses some version of the open source operating system Linux.

Due to its growing power across the world, open source is expected to play a crucial role in the future of space expeditions. It’s already proven its importance. The software was used on HPE’s Spaceborne Computer that flew on the International Space Station. That computer was controlled by an open source operating system that was initially installed to test if an off-the-shelf computer system could be successfully operated for long periods in space, without major changes to account for the harsh space environment.

That computer wrapped up 615 days of operation on the ISS last June. The computer system is now undergoing an intense analysis by researchers, which will help inform how we can use off-the-shelf supercomputers on spacecraft in deep space missions, including to the moon and Mars.

Using open source to design hardware

Open source innovations aren’t limited to software only. Spacecraft hardware is also developed by open, collaborative teams with open source design guidelines. Open source hardware instruction set architectures (ISA), like the RISC-V processor, exist and are used by companies across the globe.

A DARPA project, for instance, seeks to lower the barriers to entry in working with hardware design. It aims to create a framework to enable a new era of innovation for the electronic and microelectronics sector. The initiative could have a huge impact and could reduce the research and development costs of a processor from from a billion dollars to as little as tens of thousands of dollars. It can also reduce the time that it takes to build a new piece of silicon hardware and prepare it for production, delivering it in weeks rather than years.

In our rapidly changing world, it’s evident that we need standardized tools for hardware design that are both applicable and accessible. This helps us break away from a traditional focus and stay open to innovations that this new initiative embraces.

Innovating infrastructure

Today, computer systems on the ISS are significantly aged. Some may have even been developed before our youngest astronauts were born! As a result, the computers we use on Earth are far superior. As we go back to space on more missions and with new technologies, we will have to consider a modular approach to upgrading computer systems. This approach allows for composable infrastructure, where we use compute, storage, and network parts as a resource hub that can be provisioned in real time. It can extend the power of computer systems depending on the designated workload. In many ways, you can think of this system like the public cloud, where resources are provisioned from a shared hub depending on their demand. A big difference between the two is that composable infrastructure stays on-site at the data center or, during spaceflight, aboard the spacecraft.

It’s crucial that computers used in space be able to adapt, as their purpose will inevitably evolve. During future settlement missions to Mars, one approach is to use the landing module as a permanent shelter once it arrives. The computer systems that help the ship descend onto the surface must be capable of reconfiguring itself to operate in its new role. This requires that major system components, like CPUs, memory, and storage, are composable.

Open source initiatives

AI-driven open source projects are a valuable commodity for solving problems. Even as far back as the early 2000s, the Earth Observing-1 (EO-1) satellite helped analyze and inform what the best response would be during a natural disaster like a volcanic eruption. The systems on EO-1 started capturing satellite images of disaster areas even before ground personnel were aware that a disaster had occurred.

More recently, the Mars Curiosity rover used an AI AGIS program capable of identifying interesting rock and soil patches that it believes should be targeted for further analysis. This has helped to speed up the process, so it doesn’t always rely on human direction.

Open sourcing initiatives have significantly progressed since then. NASA’s Open Source Development program has continued to enhance the public’s abilities to engage with its missions. NASA offers challenges, prize competitions, crowdsourcing, and citizen science opportunities to open source ideas and innovations and help address challenges in partnerships with innovators from across the country and world.

Other initiatives include the Libre Space Foundation, a network that promotes and develops and free and open source technologies to foster knowledge on space exploration. They’re currently creating an open source network of satellite stations on the ground that can communicate with spaceships, stations and satellites in space. The UPSat project, which aims to be the first completely open source satellite launched, is one program they help support. Other resources like OpenSpace Project provide a visualization tool to explore the entire known universe.

Open source is the next frontier in space exploration because it will help take us where we want to go in the cosmos. For continued exponential success in the sector, we will need more open source projects and find similar advances to how we develop and deploy spacecraft software, hardware, and infrastructure. The only way to make this possible is by continuing to foster open and collaborative mindsets in both the private and public sectors.