Sometimes it seems that open source has permeated every aspect of our modern technology. From our phones, to our browsers, and even our cars, open source software and hardware has finally started to make the move from niche hobby to big business. But there are still a few standout examples of technology which has, thus far, managed to keep itself closed up. One of those areas is the exploration of space.
For the last 60 years or so, the only people getting into space were world superpowers, and they weren’t exactly forthcoming with details on how their individual space programs operated out of fear of international espionage. Today, the space program is slowly starting to change thanks to increased commercial involvement from the likes of SpaceX and Virgin Galactic, but this has really only replaced national secrets with corporate ones.
Luckily, there are a number of amateur and professional scientists who are working on opening up space to the general public. One of those people is Alexandru Csete, also known by his handle OZ9AEC. We recently got the chance to speak with Alexandru about his considerable professional and personal contributions to space technology and exploration.
Passion for Space
The Powerbase: Alexandru, thank you for taking the time to answer some of our questions. Could you start by telling our readers a little about yourself?
Alexandru: I’m a physicist from the University of Aarhus. After university I worked in the European space industry on the ATV Jules Verne and Gaia missions. After 8 years I decided to try something else and I took a job at Thrane & Thrane as a development engineer working with control systems for stabilized antennas, such as the recently launched SAILOR 900 VSAT. In my spare time I enjoy ham radio and I also contribute to private space projects like Euroluna and Copenhagen Suborbitals.
The Powerbase: With your professional experience, it’s no surprise your hobbies involve radio communications and space technology. Have you always been so interested in space? What do you think it is about space that fascinates people so much?
Alexandru: I have been interested in astronomy and been using amateur radio satellites since I was in high school, but my serious interest in space technology and exploration didn’t really start until the end of my university studies. At that time I had a friend who was involved in the famous Ørsted satellite and I thought the work they were doing was really cool. When I finished university I decided to try my luck in the space industry.
I think people are fascinated by space because we are explorers by nature. Exploring and colonizing space is the logical next step, now that most of planet Earth is explored and inhabited.
The Powerbase: You make it very clear on your site that you believe strongly in free and open source software. How did you become interested in the free software movement?
Alexandru: I had my first contact with Linux in 1995 in the form of Slackware 2.2 (with kernel 1.2). Even though it was at a very early stage, I felt it was a huge improvement compared to DOS and whatever Windows we may have had back then (and OS/2). I was particularly impressed by the freely available developer tools and as the Internet got more and more common over the following years, it was thanks to free and open source applications, libraries and toolkits that I could learn to write software. Under these circumstances it felt natural to make my software available for free and including the source code.
The Powerbase: During your time with the European Space Agency, was there much of a focus on free and open source software? NASA has a good attitude towards opening up as much of their software as possible, was there a similar feeling at the ESA?
Alexandru: European space projects are done differently than in the US. NASA does a lot of R&D and prototyping themselves, In Europe pretty much everything is done by industry and ESA personnel acts as supervisors. It is therefore quite limited how much open source ESA can produce. However, I have had the impression that ESA is very positive with respect to open source and I know they have created and contributed to several projects, e.g. Genso and STA. I don’t know if ESA has any official policy regarding open source.
The Powerbase: So far, private space endeavors such as the Copenhagen Suborbitals have focused on being open source and not for profit. Do you think citizen-run space programs and scientific experiments need to be fully open for the good of the community? Is it necessary for success?
Alexandru: It is too early to tell since none of such projects have completed their mission. It is however clear to me that the more open a project is (be that non-profit, commercial or government), the more interest will it receive from people.
The Powerbase: What are your feelings on projects like the Hackerspace Global Grid, which aim to create an open source ground station network for satellite tracking and communication? Is this a technology the community needs to continue with more ambitious scientific missions?
Alexandru: It is great that hackers and makers show interest in space exploration and ham radio because both of these fields need more attention. As for the ground station network, well… I’d rather see time, effort and money be spent on building communication satellites and put in a useful orbit. We only have a few amateur radio satellites left and all of them are reaching end of life. There are of course a bunch of cubesats flying around but only few of those offer any useful telecom capabilities. As much as I appreciate and respect their educational value, once in orbit most cubesats are just flying signal generators.
The Powerbase: There are some examples of well handled CubeSat projects, such as the Delfi-C3, but they do seem few and far between. Is this where you believe groups should be putting more of their time and energy into, building and operating more scientifically useful and mature CubeSat projects to gain practical experience?
Alexandru: I didn’t mean to suggest that any cubesat projects are not handled sufficiently well, nor to question their scientific mission or value. On the contrary, I’m impressed by how much various cubesat groups around the world accomplish given the complexity of such projects and given that most of the participants are in the project for a short time (most participants are students who have to move on after 6-12 months).
I am, however, not particularly impressed by the advances done in cubesat communications. Most missions seem to be stuck on VHF/UHF using data modes that should have been obsoleted a decade ago. I have a cellphone in my pocket with three high performance microwave transceivers in it, one of which can transfer tens of megabits per second. Cubesats are limited to kilobits per second. It doesn’t make sense to me.
I have noticed a few initiatives over the last years which could bring megabit transmitting capabilities to cubesats but their status and availability is not quite clear to me.
The Powerbase: What’s held back the community from developing more mature CubeSats? Is it simply the lack of funds, or do you think it’s because, as you said, there isn’t as much interest in the applicable fields of study as there should be?
Alexandru: I don’t know, you’ll have to ask those who build cubesats. Amateur radio satellites have traditionally been larger than cubesats, and it is only recently that AMSAT-NA has started working on cubesats, simply because of better and cheaper launch opportunities. It is indeed the increasing launch costs that have put an effective stopper for launching new amateur radio satellites. Amsat Germany has been trying to find a launch for P3E for many years now without any luck. It’s a shame because that satellite would really kick ass with its elliptical orbit and microwave capabilities.