Open Source and Space – Everybody But AMSAT Came To The Party!

Bruce Perens K6BP, AMSAT member; Michelle Thompson W5NYV, AMSAT Director

Open Source is big in space! Just ask NASA, which operates code.nasa.gov, containing millions of lines of Open Source software created by NASA itself, including Open Mission Control Technologies, Core Flight System: NASA’s spacecraft firmware system, and the General Mission Analysis Tool. With such a complete Open Source toolkit for all aspects of its missions, we can confidently say NASA has gone Open Source. ESA has also come to the Open Source party, releasing lots of code, including their own nanosat firmware, a plate solver that tells you where your telescope is pointed by looking at the photo it takes, and a directory of Open Source Space software that they recommend. SpaceX, which launches more rockets to orbit today than any nation or company, and owns the largest satellite fleet, uses Linux as the brain of its rockets and open source software with SDRs for communications

And Open Source is big in Amateur Space! Ask Librespace, creator of UPSat, a fully-Open-Source cubesat and SatNOGS, a vast ground-station network built of Open Source software and Open Hardware. Fossa came to the party with an Open Source satellite, and has two more in development. Even AMSAT-EA, the European affiliate of AMSAT, has two satellites containing Open Source electric thrusters developed by Applied Ion Systems. And Open Research Institute has received a half-million-dollar grant to develop a 10 GHz digital ground-station as Open Source.

Why is Open Source important to Amateur Space? Let’s start with money: ARDC is providing five Million dollars per year in grants to non-profit organizations to do work important to Amateur Radio, but requires that the technology created be Open Source. Why is Open Source so important that ARDC insists on it? It is software that is free to use, modify, and redistribute, and comes with source code. So, once written, Open Source software tends to be adopted by programmers who keep it alive, improve it, make it run on more and different sorts of computers, etc. Open Source also gets lots of users, who are attracted by the power, versatility, and the zero cost. ARDC obviously wants their grants to be as effective as possible, and for the result to be available to everyone. So, they insist on Open Source.

But Open Source was already popular long before ARDC started making grants. GNU Radio is probably the most powerful software in the Amateur world, allowing programmers to implement many different kinds of transmitters and receivers in software, without picking up a soldering iron! That Open Source SDR software became so powerful that even the United States Government started supporting its development, so that their intelligence agencies could rapidly write new receivers to eavesdrop on the bad guys. The Government had paid a Billion dollars for commercial software like it that never worked. This was just the latest in a long list of disappointments with proprietary software. After a thorough study, they turned to Open Source. Open Source has similarly taken over the computer industry: The largest companies today, Amazon, Google, Facebook, aerospace giants like SpaceX all have in common: their software infrastructure is built on Open Source.

It turns out that sharing your software development with the general public is a really good idea. It allows collaboration easily, something companies previously had a hard time doing without lots of lawyers and conflicting agendas. It produces measurably better code, because people naturally write better when the whole world is looking over their shoulder, and because two developers (or 1000) are better than one. The superior quality of open source software has been repeatedly confirmed, most notably by Harvard Business Review.

And, everybody benefits because they get great software that they can use, extend, and share for any purpose. It became clear when I spent time with NASA engineers that the decision to Open Source was driven by the engineers and researchers themselves: It’s just considered the best way to make software these days. Open Source is especially important for science: being able to duplicate an experiment to corroborate its results, and being able to read the code to see if an experimenter made a mistake, are critical to establishing truth.

A version of Open Source called Open Hardware is used to share hardware designs rather than computer software. The CERN Open Hardware License and the TAPR Open Hardware License are both excellent examples of widely-adopted and battle-tested open source licenses that enable high quality and productive open source work. If you, as an AMSAT volunteer, want to reserve the right to make money off your code or hardware design, then go into business for yourself. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be paid for your product. But, please! Do not encumber an educational organization with proprietary intellectual property for personal pecuniary gain to the exclusion of the non-profit mission of AMSAT!

There are so many other options available to you if making money is your priority. Amateur radio is a special case. We need to be sharing our knowledge for the benefit of all, whenever we can.

Open Source is the only viable strategy an Amateur organization has to work with ITAR and EAR. These are the United States technology export laws that would otherwise hinder any US-based satellite organization. Satellites are part of a large body of technology that the government considers to be “munitions”, and doesn’t wish to have exported. It happens that ITAR and EAR both have clearly written exceptions regarding Open Source. These exceptions allow an Open Source development paradigm to be used without the export restrictions we would otherwise face when working with volunteer collaborators. Without Open Source, we would be required to carry out our development in secret – with all of the logistical complications of developing technology in secret – using only volunteers who are US Residents, and we would face serious penalties for leaks of our technology. This is very expensive and requires volunteers that do nothing more than monitor other volunteers. Is this what you want your AMSAT dues to pay for?

When our amateur satellite projects are Open Source we can operate in public. We can use collaborators from all over the world without restrictions. As of August 2020, the Department of Defense confirmed that for ORI.

So, we can share our amateur satellite developments with Libre Space Foundation, which is in Greece; AMSAT-EA, in Europe; and other organizations that we would have to lock out otherwise. We can directly use the Open Source they, NASA, and ESA have already developed.

So, why won’t AMSAT come to the party?

AMSAT isn’t getting funding like the half-million recently allocated to ORI – an amount which could easily also go to AMSAT if they were willing to work on Open Source.

Incredibly, ORI offered to share the granted funds with AMSAT/AREx, and AMSAT/AREx declined.

In 2020, AMSAT borrowed money from the Federal Government so that AMSAT could continue to pay salaries, closed their office permanently, and permanently ended printing of the AMSAT Journal. It sounds like they need money. For years, at every Hamvention and every AMSAT Symposium, the news has been negative. The potential of getting a piece of that five Million per year, every year, should attract them. Over time that would be many Millions of dollars to fund AMSAT projects.

But today AMSAT is even more hostile to Open Source! In the September 2020 issue of AMSAT Journal, available only to members, AMSAT Vice President of Engineering Jerry Buxton published the most odd column in which he – there’s no other way to explain it – deliberately paraded his ignorance of Open Source software.

That this flaunt was obviously meant to annoy people was made even more clear because Jerry also included a “MAGA” reference in the article. This is what’s known as a dog-whistle: speech that has a hidden meaning to your target audience. Whatever your politics is, you should know that responsible corporate officers, which Jerry is supposed to be, don’t mix issues in their corporate communications. Doing so invariably alienates part of their audience to no purpose, and to the detriment of the organization because it harms the organization’s relationships.

In his column, Jerry expresses that he is mystified about what Open Source is, because he can’t find it in his dictionary. Jerry would not have had far to go if he’d really wanted to know about Open Source, since there is considerable overlap between AMSAT’s membership and the ORI and GNU Radio communities, both of which deal with Open Source exclusively. The co-founder of ORI is a current AMSAT Board of Directors member and presented at length about this very subject at the October 2020 AMSAT annual board meeting. Was Jerry not present at this meeting?

And we wonder about the many talks about Open Source at AMSAT Symposium 2019: Jerry was in the audience, perhaps his mind was elsewhere? By AMSAT Symposium 2020, 60% of the Proceedings were about open source projects and policies. Has Jerry not leafed through the 2020 Proceedings yet? Was he absent from the Symposium stream, where AIS presented an update on open source thruster designs? The level of interest in open source from volunteer engineers and contributors is clearly present. Yet, Jerry Buxton claims there is no interest in open source, at all.

There are many AMSAT members known to have a deep knowledge of Open Source that Jerry could have turned to, although I fear that not all of them will be renewing their membership this year. We need volunteers that are competent and comfortable with open source technologies. How else can AMSAT compete?

There is more in Jerry’s discussion which I shall not amplify. Because he chose to base his thesis on ignorance, repeating it would not contribute to your knowledge.

We should consider the cost to AMSAT of Jerry’s professed ignorance. It is completely absurd for any organization that develops software and electronics to have a head of engineering who does not have a significant understanding of Open Source. No other organization would tolerate it today. Any that did would be wasting money and time reinventing what is publicly available for free. In AMSAT’s case, this article is an admission that some Directors and Officers are deliberately passing up on opportunities to financially support the organization.

ARDC isn’t the only grantor that would want to see work made Open Source, many corporate and non-profit grantors expect the same. The amounts of money available dwarf any previous donations and fundraising.

Fortunately, ORI, Libre Space Foundation, and many other organizations carry on the development of Amateur Space. If AMSAT won’t join the party, the party will go on happily without AMSAT.

Is this what you, as a member or amateur space enthusiast, want?

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Open Source is in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, but “Amateur Radio” or “Ham Radio”? Nada. Image copyright 2020 Merriam-Webster.