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, 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’ss 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?


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

ORI Fulfills ITAR Requirement

ORI has made its public technical data – all software, schematics, designs, and other information contained at available for unlimited distribution at the 2018 Cal Poly Cubesat Developers Conference, in compliance with ITAR 121.11(a)(6).

ITAR 121.11 does not explicitly state that making data available on the Internet places that data in the “public domain” (their wording) – although we believe any court would consider this to be so.? Instead, it gives a number of methods including unlimited distribution at a conference, and making the data available at a public library (most of which do provide web access, and thus we believe this requirement is satisfied by internet data).

Notices of the availability of our online data were posted in several locations at the conference and on the conference’s online discussion system. WiFi and cellular data were available at the conference for the attendees to explore or download our information.

“Public domain” information, in the context of ITAR, is information available to the public, rather than the copyright sense of “public domain” which means information for which copyrights have been abandoned. ORI and its volunteers generally retain copyright on their information, but it is placed under an Open Source license which grants a set of rights including use, modification, and redistribution to the general public.

Paid Ground-Station Control Operators and Amateur Satellites

Paid personnel are not allowed to be control operator or license grantee of Amateur Satellites. In the United States, this means that a paid employee of the sponsoring organization of the satellite, for example a professor at the university that has built the satellite, can not be a control operator or the license grantee.

I recently corresponded with our IARU Divison 2 representatives regarding this issue. Thanks to Edson W. R. Pereira PY2SDR and Ray Soifer W2RS for this information:
The issue regarding paid operators is due to the definition of the amateur radio service as defined by the ITU.

ARTICLE 1 Terms and definitions

  • No. 1.56 amateur service: A radiocommunication service for the purpose of self-training, intercommunication and technical investigations carried out by amateurs, that is, by duly authorized persons interested in radio technique solely with a personal aim and without pecuniary interest.
  • No. 1.57 amateur-satellite service: A radiocommunication service using space stations on earth satellites for the same purposes as those of the amateur service.
  • No. 1.96 amateur station: A station in the amateur service.

The same definition is used by the FCC:

The key point here is the term “pecuniary interest” — in other words, “without financial compensation”. The definition is related to the *operation* of an amateur radio station, as you have stated in your message. Persons, including amateur radio operators, could be financially compensated to design and build amateur satellites, but according to the regulations, as they are presently written, the person cannot be compensated to operate the station.

If the station will operate under a US FCC amateur license, the control operator may not be an employee of the sponsoring organization, whether or not he is being directly compensated for operating the station. The license grantee is also deemed to be the operator of the space station operating under his license.

For those reasons, FCC licenses most Cubesats as experimental, not amateur. Experimental licenses do permit operators to be compensated. However, experimental stations may not communicate with amateur stations.

Ground Station Weekly Report #409

Welcome to the Phase 4 Ground Weekly Report!


Video link

2 4 6 8 Everybody Correlate!

Correlator team had a conference call on Thursday 5 April 2018. Jordan, Brennan, Ed, and I talked on the conference bridge Ed set up for us for about 45 minutes. We covered a lot of ground and got some idea of next steps. We have a repository that has GNU Radio draft blocks that do the Pi/2 BPSK demodulation and decoding, and we need to get it working as a correlator.

We also have a correlation estimation block in GNU Radio that has an issue.

Brennan Ashton reviewed our block and didn’t see any major issues yet, and then went out to see what he could see about the correlation estimation block.

Please review Brennan’s pull request here:

This is an attempt to solve this issue here:

Which if successful will help us and a lot of other people.

This effort is in progress and will be updated as the code is reviewed and feedback from GNU Radio given.

10GHz Filter

We have a 10GHz filter design proposed from Jeffrey Pawlan.

It covers the 10GHz amateur band, has 0.1dB variation over the band, 0.1dB insertion loss, and 20-30dB return loss. It’s a high-performance filter and we are talking about how to get it published, how many prototypes to build, and what the potential market might be. Here’s the first four documents from Jeffrey. These are in the repository at the link in the notes. If you have feedback we want to hear it.

Block Party at GNU Radio Conference 2018

We are sponsoring a Block Party at GNU Radio Conference 2018. This is a multi-day hackfest, workshop, and summit all about making an open source DVB-S2 and DVB-S2X receiver in GNU Radio. Come and help. We have five solid technical docents for the event and could use more. The goal is to bring blocks and write blocks on site, test interoperability, and leave the conference with a working DVB-S2 receiver. This is the central mission for successful continued research and development and we need all hands on deck.

If you’ve have never coded a block in GNU Radio, then don’t worry. It wasn’t until the past year that I had ever coded up a block for GNU Radio. I just had never needed to. There is a series of guided tutorials from GNU Radio’s website. The link is in the notes.

Go there, or search them up with “gnu radio guided tutorials”, walk through them, and you will have the tools and the workflow experience to be able to contribute.

Having said that, if you are only comfortable coding in python or C++ then that’s ok too. If you have an idea for getting some part of the DVB-S2 digital signal processing done, and either don’t have time to work through block coding or pybombs distribution, then you can certainly still help by sharing your signal processing code. Don’t let GNU Radio block configuration stop you. You’re needed and appreciated.

KA9Q SDR – stereo field

Phil Karn has shared a work in progress with us. He calls it the KA9Q SDR. However, the module in this SDR code that I’d like to highlight is a stereo field audio adapter.

This works by taking in multicast audio streams. Each audio stream comes from an individual audio source, or participant. These participants in a round table audio conference are placed at different points in the stereo spectrum.

Phil Writes:

I’m writing a lightweight, modular SDR package that uses IP multicast
for inter-module communication. Multicasting is very flexible and
convenient for this sort of real-time application, and I really think
it should become standard practice.

One module is an audio decoder-player. I’m often running several SDRs at once so I wrote it to handle multiple multicast streams. Since several mixed audio streams can be confusing, I’ve been experimenting with ways to help the user distinguish them.

I started with a simple text display that lists the streams and their
types and sources, highlighting those that are currently active. You
can individually adjust levels or ignore those you don’t want.

Since most sources are mono, I added the ability to give each one its
place in the stereo aural image. I’m trying to recreate the famous
“cocktail party effect” that, in person, helps you pick out one voice
from several talking at once.

Audio engineers typically place a source in a stereo image with a
mixer “pan pot” that adjusts its gain in each channel. This works –
sort of. I wanted to find something better.

So I read up auditory perception. I learned that we distinguish the
direction of a sound only partly by the level difference between our
ears, as that doesn’t actually change much as your head turns. The
*real* cue is the difference in arrival time. The speed of sound is
about 340 m/s, so if our ears are 30 cm apart (measuring around the
head) that’s a little less than a millisecond.

This didn’t seem like much, but it was very easy to add these small
delays to the “pan pots” in my player. And it works! The effect is
almost eerie; you have to listen to each channel in turn to convince
yourself that the levels are almost the same.

Conference calls (or “round tables” as we hams call them) are very important in communications. I’ve long thought we can make them much better, especially in how we handle several simultaneous speakers. If we use this scheme to place each participant in a round table we should get a lot closer to that “in person” experience that’s so difficult to produce in electronic communications.

All this requires that each participant receives every other
participant as a separate stream — there’s no central “conference
bridge” that mixes everybody together. This is a perfect application
for IP multicasting. Not only can you put each participant in its
place, the status display shows you at a glance who’s talking. You can
squelch an individual who keeps disrupting the meeting, and you can
even have a private aside by sending unicast traffic rather than
multicasting to the entire group.

A lot of this was done as research in the early days of what became
‘voice over IP’ (VoIP) but it seems to have fallen by the wayside. It
really deserves to be more widely recognized and used.

Phil Karn, KA9Q
9 April 2018

Careful COTS SDR

We are making great progress on the Careful COTS re-layout of a USRP E310 with future plans to tackle the E320. We’re collaborating with AMSAT Golf on this and have gained enthusiastic support from Ettus Research engineering. The next steps are to negotiate what’s needed on the business side. Scheduling talks is in progress.

If you’re not familiar with the term, Careful COTS – COTS means commercial off the shelf – is taking something that wasn’t designed specifically for space and making it work for space environments. This is done by selection of the right components, designing in redundancy at the system level, and testing the entire system for radiation tolerance.

We have a high degree of confidence that the Ettus USRP will work and some volunteers willing to do the work. If you are interested in this part of the project, let me know.

Badge Update

The Transionospheric badge prototypes are being built at a contract manufacturer in San Diego right now. We are working hard to have them at Hamvention for sale. All proceeds benefit Phase 4 Ground! They aren’t just for show, they will be a radio peripheral for Phase 4 Ground radios, providing a lot of visual reinforcement on what your radio is doing and the health and status of your link. Whether you have a satellite or a terrestrial system, the same information will be stylishly displayed. We are working hard to make it possible to command other radios as well. More on that as it develops!

If you want to be part of the effort, then join our Slack and mailing list at

Write me for an invitation to Slack. All are welcome. This project is intended to spread enjoyment, appreciation, and success in broadband digital communications at microwave for amateur radio use. A lot of what we do is complex and challenging, but we are here to help and you can contribute at any level.

Thank you for all the support and interest. If you have suggestions or questions or something you think we need to know about, let us know. If all goes well, we’ll see you next week!

European Space Agency and NASA Open Source Licenses Reviewed

As a member of the Open Source Initiative’s license-review committee, I reviewed licenses submitted by the European Space Agency and NASA. The ESA licenses are close to acceptance but need a little more work. The NASA license is more problematical in my opinion and I am not recommending that it be accepted without a significant rewrite. – Bruce Perens K6BP

2018-01-27 Executive Board Meeting Minutes

The January 27th board meeting was carried out via email, and proceeded until January 29. The directors received and approved the President’s report:

On January 9, I retained Foundation Group to handle our 501(c)3 application and our compliance with 501(c)3 requirements and filing of required forms through the end of 2018. The formation and compliance package cost $3500, which I paid from personal funds. This was not the cheapest vendor, but one which appeared to have good notices for successful formation of 501(c)3 organizations – which is no trivial feat. I generally bill about that much for a day’s intellectual property consulting, so I was happy to offload the work.

Foundation group filed our EIN application with IRS, our EIN is 82-3945232.

Foundation group has provided a set of formation documents, I will request that they amend the prototype bylaws to make it explicit that all required meetings may be carried out through electronic communications.

On January 27, I signed and mailed our corporation formation document (filled in by Foundation Group) to the Secretary of State of California, with $30 payment which I paid from personal funds. They are handling applications submitted about two weeks ago, so I expect to see a response in three weeks.

Organizational Progress

The State of California has accepted our articles of incorporation and our informational form for 2018.

We have contracted a professional firm to carry out our 501(c)3 filing with the U.S. Internal Revenue service and to do our compliance filings from year to year. The firm completed the first pass at our Federal and State applications, which we sent back to correct some wrong assumptions. We expect to have satisfactory applications soon.

Our California charitable registration is available online.