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Space Exploration Gets Open Sourced

Satellite Technology

Satellite Technology Feature Article

August 03, 2011

Space Exploration Gets Open Sourced

By Doug Mohney, Contributing Editor


Last week, O’Reilly’s OSCON 2011 dished out a couple of courses of open source for space exploration, with NASA discussing its General Mission Analysis Tool (GMAT) and Ariel Waldman plugging the concept of “Hacking Space Exploration.” NASA is also bragging about the launch of its open government blog at open.nasa.gov.


GMAT is open source space mission design and analysis tool. It has been in collaborative development since 2005, with NASA, other agencies, academia, Thinking Systems Inc., Air Force Research lab and other parties actively contributing to its development.   

According to a NASA blog posting, the agency currently spends a lot of money on proprietary/closed mission planning software. The Navigation and Mission Design Branch spent $800,000 last year on software licenses, so moving to an open source tool provides benefits both in terms of money and flexibility in being able to modify and improve code for specific needs.

GMAT has already been used to support a number of missions, including LCROSS, ARTEMIS, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, and the Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission. The code is available free of charge to use, modify, and share as per the terms of NASA’s Open Source (News - Alert) Agreement v1.3. It runs on Windows, Mac, and Linux and is available for download from sourceforge.

The software distribution comes with 40 example mission scripts, including geostationary, LCROSS, Mars transfer, Lunar transfer and Libration points.   Ongoing development will add event detection; ground track plot; an orbit wizard; force models (Mars atmosphere, general relativity, Earth tides); and improve the user experience with GUI improvements and interface options.

Ariel Waldman took a broadstroke approach in her OSCON presentation, plugging her spacehack.org web directory of participatory space projects.   Twenty eight different projects are listed where anyone can sign up to add their PC into a “cloud” for processing data, volunteer to classify parts of the lunar surface or Hubble Space Telescope images, or even learn how to build your own telescope.   Some of the entries are serious science and data processing, while others – such as building your own telescope – are more educational in nature.

Launched on July 28, open.nasa.gov comes as a part of a larger initiative by the White House for Executive Branch agencies to become more open and accountable. The site is described as a “collaborative platform for the open government community to share success stories and projects they are working on” with content written by NASA employees and contractors to highlight the ways “transparency, participation, and collaboration are being embraced by NASA policy, technology, and culture.” 

Since this is NASA, there’s a larger Open Government Plan for the agency that totals a whopping 107 pages of .PDF, along with a web page that lists 25 fact sheets broken up into four different categories.   After taking a quick look at the .PDF and the fact sheets, I can understand why industry working with NASA on commercial manned spacecraft tend to like Space Act Agreements over more formalized contracts.

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Doug Mohney is a contributing editor for TMCnet and a 20-year veteran of the ICT space. To read more of his articles, please visit columnist page.

Edited by Jennifer Russell

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