National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Goddard Space Flight CenterGoddard Space Flight Center

Open Source Software Streamlines Process for Testing SmallSats

The Jon McBride Software Testing and Research Team gathers in front of STF-1.

The Jon McBride Software Testing and Research Team gathers in front of STF-1.

The very first spacecraft built in West Virginia reached completion last year, thanks to a collaboration between NASA’s Independent Verification and Validation (IV&V) Facility, West Virginia University (WVU) and the NASA West Virginia Space Grant Consortium (WVSGC). The history-making CubeSat is called STF-1, short for Simulation to Flight 1, and it launched into space at the end of 2018.

“We at IV&V were interested in SmallSats, and WVU was working on a proposal as well,” explains Justin Morris, project manager for STF-1. “We thought, ‘Why do two proposals when we can do one together and make it stronger?’”

STF-1 is a multitasking CubeSat — while its primary purpose is to demonstrate technology, it also carries three science experiments from WVU. NASA Operational Simulator for Small Satellites (NOS3) stars as the main character of the STF-1 mission. NOS3 gives developers a way to emulate hardware in a virtual setting before the hardware even exists.

“Typically, commercial components have some sort of lead time that can take months,” Morris explains. “It’s not like going online and getting your product in two days.”

While the team waits on CubeSat components to arrive or be built, they can continue moving the mission forward without the hardware. For example, using NOS3, The STF-1 team modeled STF-1’s electrical power system before receiving it from commercial company Clyde Space, and they ran flight software on the digital model. “We modeled the system using vendor documentation, which let us work earlier and without the hardware in place,” Morris says.

This flexibility led Morris and his team to finishing STF-1’s software months before launch. With NOS3, engineers can complete work earlier in a satellite’s life cycle, saving valuable time and allowing multiple stages of development to happen in parallel.

The package of software programs performs a number of tasks related to testing flight software, with NOS serving as the core technology. NOS is a framework that simplifies the often complicated process of setting up software development and test environments for missions. NOS3 takes simulation concepts developed by IV&V’s Jon McBride Software Testing and Research Lab for larger missions such as the James Webb Space Telescope and translates them to the SmallSat platform.

STF-1 demonstrates how NOS3 can benefit a SmallSat mission throughout its entire life cycle. In the case of STF-1, NOS3 has helped the team at IV&V work more smoothly with partners at WVU.

“In these types of collaborative projects, you’re relying on folks for other pieces,” Morris says. “We were able to give the WVU mechanical aerospace team NOS3 early on, enabling them to develop their instrument software.”

While WVU contributed science instruments to STF-1, WVSGC used STF-1 to engage K-12 students in STEM by holding competitions and doing giveaways. Kids in West Virginia were challenged to build their own STF-1 models out of building blocks, and WVSGC partnered with IV&V’s student outreach program to promote the mission. Several STF-1 team members grew up in West Virginia, another reason for fanfare surrounding the mission.

“We’re pretty proud that this is the first spacecraft built in the state,” Morris adds.

He praises the team that came together to facilitate the mission. From the spacecraft developers and students at WVU to the interns who helped with outreach, “it’s not often you work on a project that goes to this level of exceptionalism,” he notes.

As for NOS3, it’s now available in NASA’s online software catalog. Morris says the Air Force Institute of Technology wants to train students to use NOS3 by incorporating it into Air Force space systems courses. Two NASA interns who learned NOS3 last year transferred to the Air Force Institute of Technology (AFIT) to help integrate the technologies into space system coursework.

“It’s always great when we can benefit others doing similar work,” Morris says.