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UPSat – an Open Source Space Satellite January 13, 2018

Posted by Citizen of Nowhere in Uncategorized.

That worked!  Not one hundred percent, but impressively well for a project that was designed and built from the ground up, within six months, and for a fraction of the cost of commercial off-the-shelf space components.

Pierros Papadeas takes you through the race to build a Greek university project (part of an EU research collaboration), to put a satellite into space to measure plasma flow in the earth’s thermosphere.  If, like me, the processes and trials of real engineering fascinates you; or if, like me, you only had the vaguest idea of what goes into making a satellite – you’ll like this.

Libre Space is a new initiative to challenge the cartels that operate in the space business.  Everything at the moment is of course proprietary, closed source and expensive.  So far so familiar.  But what I didn’t know is that they often use hardware and software which is decades old.  Profit motives and private ‘intellectual property’ actively prevents innovation.

Libre Space wants to take the Open Source hacker ethic into space research so that the results and techniques can belong to all of us.  Who knows, it may prove to be a key element of Fully Automated Luxury Communism™.


1. alanmyler - January 14, 2018

I’ve been working on hardware for space vehicle telemetry for the past year. It’s true to say that to date the technology is old. That’s changing but the underlying engineering mindset is very conservative in terms of change. Space is a very harsh operating environment, the temperature range is wide, the risk of particles fecking up the electronics is high, the cost of flight failure is immense. It all adds up to very intensive system engineering, there aren’t really too many corners that can be safely cut. It’s not something that leaves itself open to disruptive innovation.


Michael Carley - January 14, 2018

Is it true NASA stay a generation behind on processors to be sure of anything they launch?


EWI - January 14, 2018

More than a generation or two. Proven reliability beats speed and features, especially in the extreme conditions outside our atmosphere.


alanmyler - January 14, 2018

My exposure to stuff would be limited enough, and I haven’t worked on any NASA projects, but it’s certainly true that older microelectronics technologies are more robust in terms of resilience in an environment where charged particles are bombarding the electronics. That’s just a feature of the larger geometries involved, a particle will do less damage to an old circuit that is 100 times larger than a more modern circuit. It also depends a lot on the type of space travel involved. A low trajectory flight, to launch a satellite, is more protected by earth’s magnetic field from really energetic particles compared with something that’s going further up, say to the ISS or the moon or mars or whatever. The flight critical stuff, which is outside my area, probably uses non silicon technology, radiation hard, to withstand those particle disruptions. Again that technology is quite old, very specialised, very expensive. It’s not the sort of technology that’s driven by cost reductions related to consumer products, which would be more the case with the dual use commercial off the shelf technology that you might get away with for telemetry (not flight critical).

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2. Citizen of Nowhere - January 15, 2018

Fascinating to hear from someone who works in the field, Alan.

But I still one for peering over the hoarding at some else’s building site and trying to work out something of what’s going on.

I’ve since found out that before you get let on a Ariane (and I fancy the same is true for at least the NASA rockets) your piece of kit goes through a rigorous proving stage and is shaken up, heated and cooled etc. etc. to ensure that its worth the cargo space. I’m not sure whether they bombard it with radiation as well.

I buy the hardware arguments to a certain extent – but why should be software not be improvable and open? I guess they’d have used military grade chips etc. in the building.

I was a little confused at the temperature testing range of only -20C to +40C, but perhaps the silver foil prevents the interior from changing temperature too much? Heat losses and gains are almost all radiative up there, aren’t they, the atmosphere being so thin.

Anyhow, wouldn’t this kind of lower cost and open route allow smaller colleges in Ireland to get involved in space science?


alanmyler - January 16, 2018

Military grade chips give you a better temperature range alright but if you’re talking about military grade what you’re dealing with is the same underlying silicon technology, just the best of the batch compared to automotive grade, industrial grade, or commercial grade. It doesn’t do anything to remove the resilience to charged particles. For that you need the special radiation hard non silicon chips.


alanmyler - January 16, 2018

Actually I looked into this a bit and it seems that there are radiation hardened silicon CMOS technologies out there now. The ESA has funded development of a rad hard microprocessor, the LEON, which is manufactured by ATMEL using CMOS. Without researching it further I’d guess that the hardening is only up to a level suitable for a subset of space missions, ie not the harsher environment out further from the earth’s field. Interesting stuff. As I say it’s not my exact specialisation so I’m not up to speed fully by any means.


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