Our vision for democratising space
In this inaugural article we discuss our vision. The intersection of small satellites and open source thinking creates a springboard for the development of a community-based approach to delivering space and space-enabled systems that are more affordable and accessible.
opensourcesatellite.org has been created by an international group of engineers with decades of experience in small satellites missions for the commercial, institutional and defence sectors. We’ve been in the fortunate position to see first-hand the missions that have been enabled by small satellites and cubesats, such as those built by AAC Clyde Space, Blue Canyon, GomSpace, ISIS Space, SSTL and Tyvak.
Whilst the recent rapid growth in the use of small satellites has been encouraging, most small satellites are beyond the direct reach of many who could benefit from their commercial value because of their initial unaffordability, the challenges in being able to maximise the full system capabilities and the difficulty in sustaining long-term financial sustainability throughout mission life.
We started to ask ourselves some searching questions that we’re thinking about deeply as we develop the Open Source Satellite programme and the spacecraft platform, which we discuss in this and future articles:
- Why should space systems only be accessible to those with significant purchasing power?
- What roadblocks exist that can result in missions falling short of expectations, in the areas of acquisition and retention of knowledge and experience of satellite design, engineering, production and operations?
- What cost (and therefore schedule) drivers should be tackled to make the biggest impact on the bottom line and time to orbit?
- How can timely, useful products be delivered to end users at affordable prices, but still allow everyone in the value chain to build a sustainable business?
Key Factors - Spacecraft Mass And Mission Lifetime
Ultimately, spacecraft mass (and hence launch mass, launch cost and launch availability) and mission lifetime are the criteria that have a significant impact on the affordability and sustainability of every business case for a space system.
The mass constraint was an important catalyst of the cubesat segment of the space industry. We have seen how the cubesat standard created an efficient way for manufacturers, users and operators to communicate and collaborate using common language, terminology and interfaces. We’ve also observed how the constraints of the cubesat form factor quickly transformed from a problem to an opportunity, stimulating the development of mass-, power- and volume-efficient components and subsystems that increase the capability and performance of cubesats.
(A Little Bit) Bigger Is Better
We are supporters - and also beneficiaries - of the developments in cubesat technologies; however, their inherent physical constraints mean that there are some missions that cannot be achieved with cubesats. There is a limit to the capability, functionality and redundancy that can be accommodated and delivered within a cubesat form factor. The mass, power, volume, AOCS, environmental and lifetime requirements for many missions will require a larger spacecraft platform that can provide increased system resources, enhanced resiliency and greater operational capabilities.
One of the primary goals of the Open Source Satellite programme is to add another dimension of mission utility:
- To grow the payload and mission-enabling capabilities in terms of accommodation, power and agility,
- Without increasing the mass of the spacecraft platform,
- Which delivers the level of controllable quality and reliability typically expected from larger spacecraft, and
- That can be delivered at a rapid pace and at an affordable entry price point and total mission lifetime cost.
The Satellite Is Only One Part Of The System
Here at the Open Source Satellite Programme we believe that it IS possible to drive the total mission cost down without impacting performance. We recognise that, in order to do this, it is necessary to consider the requirements of the entire mission life cycle because the satellite is only one part of the system that delivers timely space-derived products to the end user. It’s simplistic to focus on the cost of building the satellite, without also factoring in the costs associated with validation and verification, launch, commissioning, operations and training in how to use the system.
The ground infrastructure, for example, can have a significant impact on the total mission costs. Ensuring that the spacecraft can operate via multiple ground station architectures is essential. This helps to keep down the operating costs and maximises the opportunities for spacecraft contacts for operational tasking and mission data downlinking.
The domains of software, AI and Machine Learning – both on-board satellites and on the ground – have enormous potential to improve the capability and utility of satellites, as well as create the information, knowledge and actionable intelligence that drives business, operational and economic value for customers and end users. We will be addressing how we can leverage these tools within the open source framework.
Our strong systems engineering focus will allow us to realise the Open Source Satellite Programme vision. Expertise and know-how acquired through decades of experience and multiple small satellite missions equips us with the necessary and critical skills to understand the technical and programmatic challenges, rigorously evaluate current and future technologies, systems and processes; and implement effective and efficient end-to-end systems and missions.
The Maker Movement Meets Space
Many of the best ideas and answers come from the sparks that are generated when a range of diverse people come together and leveraging this using the open source approach is an ideal way for the next-generation satellite to be created. The open source approach to innovation and product development has a lot of overlaps with the Maker Movement, a “..cultural phenomenon that celebrates shared experimentation, iterative learning, and discovery through connected communities that build together, while always emphasizing creativity over criticism..”
The open source approach has been very effective in the software domain for increasing accessibility, improving quality, allowing customisations, increasing freedom and flexibility, promoting interoperability, providing support and allowing stakeholder contributions to influence the direction of development according to emerging needs. Above all, it allows these benefits to be delivered at a lower cost than alternative options. We want to apply the philosophy and generate similar benefits for space programmes.
There have been a few initiatives in the cubesat sector that have adopted an open source approach. However, no-one has successfully implemented an Open Source philosophy for larger spacecraft and we believe that NOW is the time to change that.
What are the KEY factors that need to be considered in the development of a fully open-source microsatellite platform? Let us know your thoughts, in the comments section below.
www.opensourcesatellite.org exists to create an environment that supports and enables entrepreneurial and innovative thinking, with the aim of taking the next step in small satellite capabilities. Join our community and be part of the journey!