Open-Source Space


So far, I haven't yet looked at what kind of software is available from the technology exchange at NASA, and there is a rather broad collection to play with. The first one I look at here is the Mission Control Technologies (MCT). This package, hosted on GitHub, provides a real-time monitoring and visualizing platform that was developed at the Ames Research Center for use in spaceflight mission operations. It is based on configurable components, so you can use this to build your own application to monitor pretty much anything.

Figure 4. With the MCT, you can build your own application to monitor almost anything.

If you want to build your own spacecraft to monitor, you will need some way of controlling its flight. Enter the Core Flight Executive (cFE), a portable, platform-independent embedded system framework developed at the Goddard Space Flight Center. It is used for flight software for satellite data systems and instruments, but you can use it for other embedded systems. It is built from subsystems including executive services, time services, event services, table services and a software bus. Python programmers can download SunPy, a library to handle several tasks you run into when doing solar science.

Figure 5. You can do all kinds of solar science with SunPy.

For many scientific applications, you need to use clusters of machines. NASA is no exception to this. To handle the complexities, several software packages are available. For dealing with files, there are the Multi-Thread Multi-Node Utilities (Mutil). Mutil provides mcp and msum, which allow for parallelized access to files for moving around a cluster. If you have a cluster of machines available over SSH, you can use them with Mesh (Middleware Using Existing SSH Hosts). Mesh provides a lightweight grid middleware that can group your cluster hosts into execution units. You then can issue a command, and Mesh will handle going to one of the available hosts in your group and running this command. If you need an interactive session, there is Ballast (Balancing Load Access Systems). With Ballast, when you try to SSH in to your cluster, you actually end up being shunted onto an available host within your cluster automatically.

The last package I want to look at is mission analysis. There is the General Mission Analysis Tool (GMAT), which is designed to help you plan your next trip to Mars. You can use GMAT to model, optimize and estimate spacecraft trajectories. You can create physical resources required for the trip, like the spacecraft, thruster, tank, ground station and so on, and model how the trip will play itself out. There also are analysis model resources, including differential correctors, propagators and optimizers to define the details of the model. The user guide describes the multitude of available options. There also is a series of tutorials, including simulating an orbit, doing simple orbit transfers or even planning an optimal lunar flyby using multiple shooting that walks you through how to use GMAT in greater detail.

Figure 6. GMAT can help you plan out your next deep space mission from the comfort of your own living room.

Now that you've looked at some of the newly released code from NASA, hopefully your interest is piqued enough to go exploring through the more than 1,000 other pieces of code available there. You never know what you may find. If you find something really interesting, please share it with the rest of us!


Joey Bernard has a background in both physics and computer science. This serves him well in his day job as a computational research consultant at the University of New Brunswick. He also teaches computational physics and parallel programming.