Brussels / 3 & 4 February 2018


Interview with Pierros Papadeas
The story of UPSat. Building the first open source software and hardware satellite

Photo of Pierros Papadeas

Pierros Papadeas will give a talk about The story of UPSat. Building the first open source software and hardware satellite at FOSDEM 2018.

Q: Could you briefly introduce yourself?

My name is Pierros Papadeas, I am the Director of Operations for Libre Space Foundation and member of the Board. I currently work at Mozilla on the Open Innovation team focusing on open source ecosystems and strategy.

Q: What will your talk be about, exactly? Why this topic?

I’ll be talking about UPSat, the first open source satellite in orbit around Earth. The talk will focus on the story of the satellite as a project, as well as our journey building the first open source satellite. We will talk about the challenges of building a space project and expand on the current state of the space industry especially with regards to open source technologies.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish by giving this talk? What do you expect?

Through this talk we would like to raise awareness for open source initiatives in space, and inspire open source technologists (engineers, programmers, analysts, makers) to engage in an open source project. We would also love to gather feedback and ideas on next steps and provide contribution opportunities for interested parties.

Q: You are one of the founders of the Libre Space Foundation, which is now three years old. What was your motive to start this foundation? And what has happened in its short history? Has it become what you planned it to be?

We started the Foundation as a small step towards supporting open source space related projects. During the 3 years of our story we have grown organically from focusing on our first project (SatNOGS - a global distributed network of ground stations) to being active throughout the space stack (upstream, midstream and downstream) through various initiatives, and building a community around those initiatives. Personally I couldn’t be more happy about our journey so far and the amount of impact achieved and potential that we see moving forward. It has certainly become more than we planned for, and we are embracing the next steps of the Foundation with eagerness and passion.

Q: How did the Libre Space Foundation got involved in UPSat and what’s the goal of this open source satellite project?

Since 2014 UPSat was a project of the University of Patras. Initially Libre Space Foundation was asked to built the ground station for the satellite (to communicate with it once in orbit) and then gradually over the course of a couple of months, for financial, engineering and management issues we ended up taking over the entirety of the project, with the University contributing on the Structural design and Electrical Power System of the satellite. We had to re-design and build the majority of the components and we introduced the shift towards the project being completely open source. The goal of the satellite is to support the QB50 science experiment, as well as (and perhaps most importantly for us) to demonstrate that open source designed and built hardware and software components can function as expected in space.

Q: What challenges did you encounter while designing, building, testing and eventually launching UPSat in orbit?

The challenges where numerous, starting with the financial ones. Lack of appropriate funding led us to invest heavily in the project (through Libre Space Foundation funds) to ensure its successful completion. Countless volunteer participation was also key to the success. On the technical side, with minimal documentation and knowledge sharing around space projects we had to re-invent the wheel and discover many procedures and practices in a really short time-frame (6 months - unheard for a space mission). Lack of tools and equipment made our building process a creative exploration as we had to figure out ways to achieve specific tasks resorting to purpose-built projects in our local lab ( Testing and verification facilities where also a challenge mainly as we had to undergo much more extensive tests than other missions, having none of our components already “flight proven”. Again creativity and countless hours of negotiations and documentation got us to the final delivery point. Launching UPSat in orbit was secured once the delivery happened, but as any typical space mission it came with long delays and timeline push-backs.

Q: Is open source software and hardware a viable approach in the space industry?

Open source software and hardware have proven themselves as viable sustainable (and profitable) approaches in various industries over the past decade. We are committed on proving the same for open source in the space industry. There is no apparent reason why this will not be the case, although we understand that going against an establishment of multi-million dollar companies with solid bonds to governmental funds and defense-backed technologies and innovation, will not be an easy feat. Our hope is that gradually individuals, companies, organizations, research institutions and governments will assess the value proposition of open source in this industry and understand the advantages of such an approach. We are more than excited to lead the way with solid examples, use-cases and success stories to help turn around the perception of open source technologies in the space industry.

Q: What is UPSat doing exactly and what data does it send to earth? And what’s the predicted life span of the satellite?

UPSat is part of the QB50 mission led by Von Karman Institute for Fluid Dynamics. It is equipped with a Science Unit measuring plasma concentrations on the lower thermosphere. Apart from its science payload readings, it also reports regularly its health status in the form of beacons. The latest analysis indicates a re-entry date around mid November 2018 which would put the life span of the satellite to approximately 18 months (launched on 17th of May 2017).

Q: What does UPSat’s community look like? How can interested people contribute? And in which domains could the project use some help?

UPSat did have a group of volunteer contributors (approximately 20 of them) during its design, build and verification. As a specific-satellite project already in space it only requires additional ground stations in the SatNOGS Network to track it. That said, Libre Space Foundation is designing the next iteration of an open source satellite, that we would require much greater participation and input from a variety of contributors with different backgrounds. We would love to apply our learnings from UPSat towards designing and flying a satellite based on a much more modular and re-usable approach. We would like to invite software and hardware engineers, analysts, physicists, mechanical engineers, communications experts, radiation specialists, microcontroller hackers, RF gurus and generally any related field people passionate about open source in space, to join our community and build together the open source future of space exploration.

Q: Which new open source projects in space can we expect in the coming years from the Libre Space Foundation?

The expansion of our SatNOGS ground station network will be one recurring theme for us. A new open source architecture and reference design for micro-satellites (cubesats but also pocketcubes) is also in the works. Satellite swarm configurations and possibilities of networking are themes that we would love to invest in more in the near future. Additionally early explorations around rocketry and feasibility studies around launching a payload in space will be the focus of a dedicated team in the Libre Space Foundation.

Q: Have you enjoyed previous FOSDEM editions?

The 2018 edition will be my 11th consecutive FOSDEM. I don’t simply enjoy them, I love them! The energy, knowledge sharing and network is unparallelled.

Creative Commons License
Creative Commons License

This interview is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Belgium License.