Author Archives: Jeremy Wright

Why We Need Professional-Level Open Source CAD

ad astra per civitatem – to the stars through community

At Mach 30, you’ll often hear us use this take on the famous Latin motto, ad astra, because we want to enable the broadest range of people possible to be part of the spaceflight community and  to contribute to our mission. A big, and sometimes insurmountable, barrier to entry for hardware project volunteers can be cost. If a user needs to pay tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars for engineering software licenses, you’ve just lost that volunteer. By utilizing open source tools, we ensure that everyone from the teenager with big dreams and a 3D printer to the retired aerospace engineer gets an equal chance to come alongside us.

Going hand-in-hand with open source software, is open standards and open data access. If Mach 30 can’t share things like CAD models, mathematical analyses, and research results with the broadest possible audience, we’re blunting the power of community. To see an illustration of this in action, see our recent blog post in which Mach 30 Reimagines The Martian with Open Source. By broadening access, we ensure that the weekend warrior working in her garage can reach us with her amazing ideas.

Up until recently, I had feared that Mach 30 was alone in thinking that the current set of open source CAD tools wouldn’t meet our needs. Then, I got an email announcing a new open source CAD discussion group organized by some members of MIT’s CSAIL lab.

Beyond just being impressed with the credentials of the attendees at the first video conference, I was struck by how dissatisfied the majority of them were with the current state of open source CAD as well. We certainly have a selection of open source CAD tools at our disposal (like CadQuery, FreeCAD, OpenSCAD, and BRL-CAD), which is great, but all of these tools seem to lack one or more fundamental components in the areas of stability, functionality, or UX (user experience).

If you don’t believe me, seat a CAD professional (on Solidworks, SolidEdge, Autodesk Inventor, etc.) in front of your choice of open source CAD tool. Even with training, you’ll see that they quickly become frustrated by the lack of what they consider basic functionality. I’ve gotten chuckles out of other CAD professionals before when I’ve mentioned my own efforts to use open source CAD for complex projects. Sure, there are individuals and small companies who use open source CAD, but I have yet to meet anyone who prefers the experience over a proprietary CAD package.

open source CAD

Modeling in CadQuery

When Mach 30 finds an area where the open source alternatives are lacking, we first look for a suitable existing project that we can contribute to. If we we’re unable to find anything, we’ll roll up our sleeves and build the tools ourselves. Currently, Mach 30 community members are direct contributors to the CadQuery CAD scripting framwork.

CadQuery has allowed us to do some very exciting things, such as driving the geometry for 3D models directly from the rocket science documented in our Mathematics Tool Kit (MTK). However, CadQuery is only part of the solution. We also need CAD and CAE (Computer-Aided Engineering) applications that are capable of things like assembly, interference detection, and analysis. Beyond just being capable, these applications need to empower the community member working with them to be productive so that their precious resource of time is used effectively and efficiently.

If we, as the broader Maker and Open Source Hardware communities, can hit the mark in the areas of affordability, data sharing, power, and usability with our open source engineering tools, we’ll increase participation and accelerate the already amazing pace with which open source software and hardware is changing the world.

So, what do you think? Are you happy with the state of Open Source CAD, depressed by it, or somewhere in-between? Are you able to make FreeCAD outperform SolidWorks or Autodesk Inventor? We’d love to hear from you about how you do it.

Jones Boys’ Rocketry

As Open Source Spaceflight Hardware (OSSHW) developers, we love to see other people building, modifying, remixing, and using our designs. In fact, we believe that the “Prime Directive” of Open Hardware is that it must be reproducible. That’s why we got so excited when we were contacted through Open Design Engine by John and Christopher from Jones Boys’ Rocketry. Christopher was working on a rocketry project for school, and was attempting to get a copy of our Shepard Test Stand thrust measurement hardware working.

John and Christopher

John and Christopher in February of ’08

Having someone build your Open Hardware has another advantage – you find more bugs and design flaws. The more people build and use your hardware, the better it gets. Our work with Jones Boys on Open Design Engine was no exception. They found a couple of bugs in our software, and their work brought about some operational improvements that we had glossed over because we’re so used to the hardware.

Christopher Testing the Shepard Hardware

After about two weeks of back-and-forth work, John and Christopher were able to get a successful data capture with a live engine.

Jones Boys’ Test Firing

Christopher was able to collect and analyze data from various motor fuel grain configurations and assembled everything into his science fair project display.

Christopher’s Display

Christopher took his display to multiple science fairs, and did extremely well. He was in 9th grade when he competed, and in the regional ISEF Science Fair, took first place in physics for his group. After that he went on to win second place in the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics fair, which included a $100 cash award and a 3 day workshop at Goddard (I’m very envious). He also got an honorable mention from the USAF Office of Scientific Research.

Christopher Explaining His Project at the Science Fair

Congratulations to Christopher for doing a great job, and thanks to him for using Mach 30 hardware. We’re always excited to work with people who want to build spaceflight related hardware without starting from scratch. If you’re interested in building a rocket motor test stand or satellite receiving ground station, please feel free to contact us. We’d love to talk with you.

ad astra per civitatem – to the stars through community

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2013 Recap

2013 was a great year of growth for Mach 30. We launched a new open source spaceflight hardware project, added great new volunteers to make even more projects possible, and fostered new partnerships in the fields of spaceflight and education. We’re looking forward to the opportunities 2014 is already promising, but before doing that we want to look back at where we’ve been.


Maureen Carruthers

Maureen Carruthers, who has been with Mach 30 since the beginning, retired from the board of directors this year. Maureen was instrumental in defining the organizational ethos that has helped bring Mach 30 to where it is today. Founding member, social media guru, organizational pioneer, these were a few of her day-to-day functions. Among the many projects she was involved in during her time as a board member were the organization our Open Design Engine Kickstarter, and many online events such as the Mach 30 Yuri’s Night party. We will miss Maureen’s contributions, but are very excited to see what she’s been doing in her new role with the National Robotics League.

Mach 30 Hangout

Mach 30 Google+ Hangout

Mach 30 runs on volunteers, starting at our board level. Several very active volunteers have come aboard this year, and have greatly increased the amount we can accomplish. Thanks to them, and the existing Mach 30 volunteers, for contributing your time, talent, and enthusiasm. Mach 30’s mission can not be accomplished without you. If you’re interested in volunteering with Mach 30, we’d love to hear from you. You can use the contact form to let us know a little about where you’d like to contribute. Not interested in hardware or engineering? No problem, Mach 30’s mission spans many disciplines, and we need people with diverse interests and backgrounds to get involved.

Export Control Task Force

During 2013, the Mach 30 community came to understand more fully just how challenging export control regulations are. For those unfamiliar with export controls, they are laws and regulations that prohibit the unauthorized exchange of information and technology that the U.S. government deems a threat to national security. Unfortunately, most things related to spaceflight fall into this category. What this means is that Mach 30 has some extra work to do on bridging the worlds of open source hardware and export controls. This is the reason for the Export Control Task Force. There are several dedicated volunteers who have elected to take on this not-so-glamorous work for the good of us all. Their research and the documents they create are published under a Creative Commons license, so you don’t have to start from scratch when working with export controls. You can find a more in-depth explanation of the task force here, and you can follow the oss-export-control Google group to keep up on the latest happenings.

Shepard Test Stand

Shepard Demo Sneak Peak

Shepard Demo Sneak Peak

Shepard is our model rocket motor test stand. It is designed to provide a safe first step into the world of rocket motor testing and analysis, with the goal of allowing students and makers to replicate the manufacturer thrust data for Estes motors. While Shepard was an active project before 2013, it saw tremendous progress in 2013. We are currently working on version 2.0, leading to a kit version that will hopefully be available sometime in the last half of 2014. Shepard has already been used for some educational and public outreach, with much more planned in 2014 as the kits become available.

Partnership with the Coca-Cola Space Science Center (CCSSC)

CCSSC's Own Shepard Test Stand

CCSSC’s Own Shepard Test Stand

We were very fortunate to connect with the team at the Coca-Cola Space Science Center in Columbus, Georgia. Our Shepard test stand project fits in very well with an educational rocket propulsion unit they are developing. The idea is Mach 30 will provide test stand hardware while CCSSC provides educational curriculum for the test stand. This will allow educators and students to get hands-on experience with real rocket motor testing in a low risk environment. We have a blog post that talks about CCSSC’s success in building their own copy of Shepard from the documentation on Open Design Engine. They will use this copy when developing the curriculum.

Ground Station

Ground Sphere v0.1 Prototype

Ground Sphere v0.1 Prototype

Ground stations that can communicate with satellites and spacecraft in orbit are a critical piece of the human spaceflight technology puzzle. With the ever increasing interest in CubeSats, low cost ground stations that makers can build are becoming even more sought after. Community member Aaron Harper has been working on a series of omni-directional ground stations that makers can build in their garage and operate with just a single laptop computer. The most recent one of these designs is Ground Sphere, which is designed to work with 915 MHz CubeSats.

Partnership with Southern Stars (SkyCube)

It’s certainly no accident that our Ground Sphere ground station design is compatible with 915 MHz CubeSats. Through a serendipitous meeting and impromptu demo at the New Space conference, Southern Stars became a more recent partner of Mach 30’s and has a very interesting use for Ground Sphere. They Kickstarted a CubeSat named SkyCube that is scheduled to launch in January. SkyCube has a very interesting feature that will transmit the tweets from orbit that SkyCube backers have written. Ground Sphere is designed to give backers the opportunity to receive those tweets directly in their homes, schools, or makerspaces.

Conference Attendance

J. Simmons at New Space 2013

J. Simmons at New Space 2013

As always, there were many great conferences to attend in 2013. The Open Hardware Summit, NewSpace, and the Open Source Hardware Documentation Jam, just to name a few. We have write-ups for a couple of these events on our blog.

  1. Open Hardware Summit
  2. New Space Conference

We find that nothing quite replaces face-to-face meetings with other space and open hardware enthusiasts. Conferences never fail to be worth the effort. Attending a space or open hardware related conference in 2014? Keep an eye on our social media channels to see if we’ll be there. We’d love to meet you!

Moving Forward

While we’re excited about what we were able to accomplish in 2013, there is so much more that can be done in 2014 with your involvement. If you have a passion for space, and want to see it become a deeper part of your everyday life, please consider becoming a member of the Mach 30 Catalyst Club. The Catalyst Club is our yearly membership program that allows you to contribute directly to Mach 30’s mission. There are multiple levels of donation, from $20 to $1000. Please consider giving at whatever level fits you the best, and partner with us in hastening the advancement of humanity into a spacefaring civilization.

Ad astra per civitatem – to the stars through community.

Related Links

Working Virtually

Over the last couple of months the Mach 30 community has been talking more about the concept of virtual Makerspaces. I’m guessing that most of our readers know what a Makerspace (a.k.a. Hackerspace) is, but just in case, I’ll give you a definition I might use.

Makerspace (n.) – A space, normally a physical room or building, where people come together to share resources such as expertise, manpower and tools. This is done to help complete projects that the makers might not otherwise have the resources for.

Some people come just to hang out and see what’s going on, but most come to work on projects. Whether you’re working on arts and crafts or spaceflight hardware, I have yet to find a Makerspace that didn’t welcome all kinds of projects.

The Mach 30 spaceflight hardware developers are spread across the U.S. and we’re always looking for better ways to collaborate on protects. Traveling would be one way to work together, but that gets expensive. We recently changed our Thursday night Google+ Hangout schedule so that we could have a dedicated hardware (a.k.a. “#EngineerSpeak”) Hangout. This will allow us to partially address our collaboration needs.

 Mach 30 Hangout

A Typical Mach 30 Google+ Hangout

The intent was to make it free form so that the things the attendees wanted to work on was what would be worked on. Just like a Makerspace. The first week ended up being more of a normal meeting where I asked for feedback on the Shepard Test Stand software. That was a great Hangout that really helped but the second week’s hardware Hangout ended up feeling much more like a Makerspace, partly because of an engineering challenge that J. Simmons gave us.

The engineering challenge was to see if we could convert the Shepard Test Stand application from Processing to Python in 10 days. That way we could test Python’s viability for use in our Shepard 2.0 kits. As we started that second week’s #EngineerSpeak Hangout, we discovered the need to make some significant changes to the sample code that I wrote to meet part of that challenge.

Shepard Test Fire 2 - E12-8 engine

There were 5 of us in attendance, but Chris Sigman and I were the only two who had accepted J’s challenge. This diversity of interests and focuses had the makings of a great Makerspace environment. Here are a couple of reasons why:

  1. Even though Chris and I weren’t in the same room, we were able to work on the code collaboratively in real time. We worked through the code, sharing solutions to some problems and talking through possible fixes for others. The only thing that would have made it better is if we had both been logged into a shared code editor so we could have been editing “over each other’s shoulders.”
  2. Even though they weren’t working on the engineering challenge, the 3 other Hangout members hung around to work on their own projects. This allowed them to comment on what Chris and I were working on and share things about their activities as well.

It was 5 people sharing a space and resources, working together and independently in true Makerspace style. The Hangout ran long, but before it was over Chris and I had fixed the code and I was left with the feeling that this Hardware Hangout stuff might have some major potential. Couple that with the ability to work on our projects collaboratively on Open Design Engine, and we have a couple of powerful tools to allow us to do distributed development.

As time goes on we’ll be developing and refining our methods of distributed collaboration. It’s a critical part of our mission and we hope you’ll join us on the ride. Stay on the lookout for a future post on how we’re starting to use Open Design Engine as a virtual Makerspace as well. If you’re interested in learning more about Mach 30 and our hardware projects, please add Mach 30 to your Google+ circles and request an invite when you see Thursday night Hangout announcements.

Related Articles

Shepard Test Stand Update 06-17-13

From the beginning of our rocket motor test stand project, code named “Shepard”, our primary objective has been that the data we record with the test stand has to match the manufacturer’s data.  That seems like an obvious goal, but the temptation is always there to run on ahead to bigger and better things before you have a good foundation.  For our rocket motor/engine test stand program, Shepard is that foundation.  Once we know that we have the fundamentals down, we can progressively scale things up through sub-orbital, orbital, and even transorbital capable rocket engines.

Aaron Harper and I have recently been working overtime to get Shepard version 1.1 ready for one of our partners, the Coca-Cola Space Science Center (CCSSC), in Columbus, Georgia.  We’re quickly advancing toward version 2.0 which will be available as an open source hardware kit. Our hope is that the kit will be a tool that the CCSSC and others can use to safely teach hands-on rocket science.  Last week, for the first time Shepard satisfied it’s “vendor verification” requirement during an impromptu test firing.  I had just completed the build of some new hardware that was bound for CCSSC, and like a good little engineer, made sure that I tested it before shipping. The video below shows the actual test firing.

The data looked pretty good onscreen, but it wasn’t until I got back inside and took a closer look that I got excited.

Shepard 1.1 Sample Thrust Curve

The motor I test fired was a D12, and if you compare our curve to the D12’s curve in the official Estes documentation, you can see that they’re very similar.  Our curve has more noise in it, mainly because it’s raw data with no clean-up. The peak thrust, time to peak thrust, and the fall-off of the profile before propellant burnout all match up very well.  Keeping in mind that Shepard 1.1 is a retrofit of version 1.0 to test components for Shepard 2.0, and is not specifically designed for use with this hardware, that’s pretty remarkable.

By the time we tune and tighten things up on Shepard 2.0, we should have a very solid base to stand on when reaching towards our goal of hastening the advancement of humanity into a spacefaring civilization.

If you’re curious about exactly what it took to get to this point, have a look at our development logs on Open Design Engine.  We’d also be happy to answer questions that you have if you contact us through this blog, email, or any of our social media channels.  We look forward to hearing from you.

ad astra per civitatem