Using LabVIEW to Create Open Mission Control, a Software System for Student Spacecraft

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"LabVIEW gave us the perfect tools to build a powerful, yet simple-to-use, graphical user interface. The system we created is suitable for school projects, but sophisticated enough for professional use as a fully featured mission control system."

- Merlin Barschke, UKSEDS [United Kingdom Students for the Exploration and Development of Space]

The Challenge:
Developing an open source mission control system for a small spacecraft that is easy enough for students to use, yet flexible and advanced enough for a national space agency spacecraft.

The Solution:
Using NI LabVIEW software to quickly and easily create professional, visually appealing mission control software for a variety of small space projects.

Author(s):
Merlin Barschke - Find this author in the NI Developer Community
Şenol Özkan - UKSEDS [United Kingdom Students for the Exploration and Development of Space]
Michael Johnson - UKSEDS [United Kingdom Students for the Exploration and Development of Space]

Introduction

Our students used LabVIEW system design software to win a highly competitive slot on the United Kingdom’s first flight of the CubeSat UKube-1, to which myPocketQub 442 was attached. This will be the first mission to use our Open Mission Control software.

CubeSats are small spacecraft, typically ranging from 0.5 to 3 ‘U,’ where a 1U spacecraft is a cube with 10 cm sides and a mass of 1.33 kg. UKube-1 is a 3U CubeSat that measures 30 cm by 10 cm by 10 cm and weighs less than 4 kg. United Kingdom Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (UKSEDS) will have the chance to fly myPocketQub 442 (a pocket spacecraft measuring less than 10 cm by 10 cm by 3 cm and with a mass of 300 g) as a payload on UKube-1. Despite its small mass and volume, the myPocketQub 442 can carry five PocketPayloads monitored and controlled by our Open Mission Control system. The PocketPayloads consist of different science and engineering experiments, as well as an educational platform made up of an Arduino microcontroller, a CCD (Charge Coupled Device) camera, and a set of sensors. Students and hobbyists can use the system to conduct their own experiments in space.

Open Mission Control Framework

We wrote the Open Mission Control software using both LabVIEW and ANSI C. It is used as the mission control software for the myPocketQub 442 mission and also provides a framework that users can quickly and easily adapt to support a variety of small space projects such as CubeSat, myPocketQub, and sounding rocket experiments.

The Open Mission Control framework consists of the GUI and the Open Mission Control toolbox, which provides a number of ready-to-use functions typically required for such an application. To adjust the system, the user can populate it with elements from the Open Mission Control toolbox and standard LabVIEW elements. With Open Mission Control, users with limited programming experience can create sophisticated mission control software starting from a solid base.

Use and Verification

The first mission to use our Open Mission Control system is the myPocketQub 442 mission, which demonstrates and verifies various Open Mission Control use cases. Our Open Mission Control system also provides a UKube-1 monitoring interface for outreach and teaching purposes.

The system is first used as a professional monitoring and commanding software for a real spacecraft.

The second main use for our Open Mission Control software involves schools and universities that can use Open Mission Control software to upload their virtual payload for OpenSpace365. The OpenSpace365 initiative invites anyone to develop a spacecraft virtual payload (software program) and run it on a satellite orbiting the Earth for one day, then monitor their experiments as they run and download the data for analysis.

Thirdly, our Open Mission Control software can monitor software for various scientific and engineering experiments run on the myPocketQub 442. The universities that conduct these experiments can use our Open Mission Control software to access and store the data from these experiments for analysis and research.

Our software also can provide communication with engineering models of the real spacecraft that are available on the Internet. Through these engineering models, the user can command and monitor the spacecraft and its payloads in real time and simulate different critical mission phases under real conditions. Virtual payload models increase the flexibility of our Open Mission Control software regarding the use of the software for educational purposes.

Distribution

Our software system is open sourced so anyone can extend its functionality. We used the free LabVIEW Run-Time Engine (available on Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux) to distribute the standard Open Mission Control application to thousands of schools and universities taking part in the project in a format that runs on any hardware. Those who wish to take the project further can access the source code for a stable, well-developed application and add their own enhancements with minimal effort.

Conclusion

LabVIEW gave us the perfect tools to build a powerful, yet simple-to-use, graphical user interface. The system we created is suitable for school projects, but sophisticated enough for professional use as a fully featured mission control system.

LabVIEW can run on multiple platforms and permits royalty-free distribution of run-time licenses, both significant factors in our selection of the software platform. Future projects that use our Open Mission Control software for monitoring and control have the sophisticated advantage of hardware interaction in LabVIEW, especially if the data is directly obtained from hardware components.

Author Information:
Merlin Barschke
Find this author in the NI Developer Community

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