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U.S., International Space Organizations Turn to Open Source

NASA, international counterparts are relying on open-source operating systems, e-mail and other programs to manage terrestrial and orbital functions.
Open source is reaching new heights as space organizations look to this communally developed software to power both terrestrial and orbital operations. Both the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Indian Space Research Organization, in particular, are using open-source software to build, guide, and repair critical satellite systems.

The use of open source is fairly widespread throughout NASA. Open source is being used is as the operating system of Project Columbia. SGI's Linux-based Altix system operates at the heart of Project Columbia, which consists of a 10,240-processor Space Exploration Simulator supercomputer built to help NASA scientists with space exploration, global warming research, and aerospace engineering.

Another prominent open source project at NASA's Ames Research Center is Livingstone2, a reusable artificial intelligence software system designed to assist spacecraft, life support systems, chemical plants or other complex systems in operating with minimal human supervision, even in the face of hardware failures or unexpected events.

NASA announced earlier this month that it had successfully radioed the Livingstone2 software on the agency's Earth Observing One satellite and tested the software's ability to find and analyze errors in the spacecraft's systems. Normally, troubleshooting is done on the ground. Livingstone2 is an enhancement and re-engineering of the Livingstone diagnosis system that was flight tested on-board the Deep Space One spacecraft in May 1999.

While it doesn't have any grandiose plans to establish a colony on Mars or the Moon, the Indian Space Research Organization, does provide India with the ability to operate its own satellite communications networks. "Every country wants to be self sufficient," says Ramani Narayanaswamy, a visiting scientist with ISRO in Bangalore who until his retirement in July had worked at ISRO's Satellite Centre.

All internal ISRO e-mail travels over a private network, but the organization's engineers frequently travel to the United States and Russia to acquire technology and expertise not available in India. These engineers also travel in order to review technology under development. "I don't know how much we can be without e-mail," says Ramani (Indian naming conventions are such that he is recognized by his first name). "Any function that we do, e-mail becomes an essential layer. But we need to protect this mail, even if it goes through a public network."

As a government organization, ISRO maintains a good deal of information to which only the government is privy. E-mail presented a dilemma. While the technology allowed ISRO's engineers to communicate from the organization's more than 20 facilities throughout the country and while they traveled the world, Internet-based e-mail programs were perceived as a security risk, says Ramani, who is working to develop and implement an information security plan for the organization.

ISRO evaluated e-mail software from Kerio Technologies, Merak Mail Server Inc., VisNetic Mail Server from Deerfield.com, CommuniGate Pro from Stalker Software Inc., and others before choosing Guardian Digital's open-source Secure Mail Suite.

The organization also wanted to implement open source solutions wherever possible throughout its network while maintaining high levels of security. ISRO has since 1998 used Linux, and over time has added Apache Web server, MySQL database, Open Office productivity applications, and, most recently, the Mozilla Web browser. Five years ago, ISRO added some Linux-based mechanical structural analysis software used for designing satellites to the Unix environment at its ISRO Satellite Centre.

ISRO's move to open source has been complicated by a trend the U.S. government is facing as well: technical staff leaving the public sector in favor of private industry. This meant that any new system had to be integrated and well supported. "Open-source solutions make in-house development unnecessary," Ramani says.

"Linux provides excellent freedom of hardware," says Ramani, adding that it frees users from the need to invest in RISC-based servers, which are generally more expensive than those employing processors based upon the x86 architecture. Three years ago, ISRO added 32 Itanium 2-based servers and workstations from Hewlett-Packard to complement its existing RISC-based servers. ISRO is now looking to standardize its use of open source software throughout its facilities, which have adopted open source on an ad-hoc basis thus far.

The Indian government in 1972 established ISRO as part of the country's Department of Space with the belief that communications and remote sensing from space would play a pivotal role in the country's developing economy. A month ago, ISRO's most recently launched satellite, EDUSAT, was placed in geosynchronous orbit so that it can remain continuously in radio contact with ground operations. EDUSAT is designed to help Indian educators meet the country's growing demand for an interactive satellite-based distance education system.