Open source powers new Aussie space race

Open source powers new Aussie space race

Linux used for machine control and data collection

A group of Australian Linux enthusiasts are using freely available software and hardware designs to engineer a space craft that could one day land on the moon and reap millions of dollars in prize money from Google.

The Lunar Numbat project was started by a team of Australians and New Zealanders who have partnered with the Google Lunar X-Prize team White Label Space.

The ultimate aim is to put "a Linux-powered robotic Australian marsupial" on the Moon.

The Google Lunar X-Prize is offering $US30 million to the first privately funded rover to land safely on the Moon, rove 500 meters and send high definition pictures and video back to Earth.

Melbourne-based physicist Luke Weston is leading the hardware development for Lunar Numbat's rocket engine throttle controller.

Speaking at this year’s open source software conference in Brisbane, Weston said the team is working with the Australian Space Research Institute (ASRI) to provide low cost open source technologies for local space projects.

“Australia was the third nation to launch a satellite from its own territory and we had an active space program back in the sixties,” Weston said. “It was launched on a British made vehicle. ASRI is interested in changing this.”

The Australia defence force has donated a stockpile of rockets like the Zuni missile to ASRI for experiments.

“We are designing and implementing electronic controllers for the rockets using open software and open hardware,” Weston said.

Back in 2004 researchers at the University of NSW also worked on putting Linux in space for one of its satellite projects.

The software is generally licenced under the GPL and the hardware under the TAPR Open Hardware licences.

“White Label Space is one of the teams in the Google Lunar X prize and it is the only team with any Australian involvement,” he said, adding people from around the world are also involved.

“There is a lot of space expertise in this group,” he said. “We’re focused on AUSROC 2.5 and the central main flight computer will be an embedded Linux machine.”

The team is also working on video compression and MJPEG2000 will be used for HD multimedia transmission over “quite a bandwidth limited” connection.

“This will require a fairly powerful Linux computer on the space craft,” Weston said. “Maybe Blackfin, but Moon hardware will have to be thermally and radiation qualified.”

“The more powerful your hardware is, the more vulnerable it is to radiation. You can’t just use earth electronics and expect it to work on the moon.”

That said, Weston believes commodity hardware can be used in space and it’s not true to say “you can’t go anywhere near space without spending $100,000”.

“There’s nothing magical about space, but need to think about the design.”

Lunar Numbat is also in the early stages of developing a radar altimeter for White Label Space, which may incorporate software-defined-radio technology.

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