Raspberry Pi in space: Putting the Linux PC into orbit

Raspberry Pi in space: Putting the Linux PC into orbit

Summary: A thriving home-brew community is already putting the credit card-sized PC to use in drones and robots. The device's designer, Eben Upton, wants to see it in rockets and satellites, too


The Raspberry Pi has been enthusiastically picked up by a dedicated modding community, and the cheap Linux computer has been used in projects ranging from drones to speech-controlled robots. Now its creators want to take Raspberry Pi to a new frontier: space.

The credit card-sized, ARM-based computers could easily be integrated into satellites, according to the device's designer, Eben Upton, who envisages them also being used for research in test rockets and high-altitude balloons.

Eben Upton
Raspeberry Pi designer Eben Upton believes the cheap Linux computer will eventually be used in space projects. Image credit: Tom Espiner

Upton, a space fan since he was a child, sees a role for Raspberry Pi in sounding rockets, which are used in astronomy, aeronomy and microgravity research. These rockets are launched a couple of hundred of kilometres into space, stay there for a few minutes, then fall back to Earth; they carry scientific equipment to take measurements during the journey.

Upton believes the Raspberry Pi could be used as a lightweight device for controlling the avionics in such sub-orbital rockets; for example, it could designate the direction, navigation and thrust.

With avionics there is a need to react very fast, he said. "Often [with] avionics platforms, there are hard real-time constraints," said Upton. "You get a signal from a sensor, from a gyro, and you run some actuator in order to correct, so if the rocket starts to go left, you want to bend it right a little bit. You want to do that over very short time scales."

In addition, one advantage of the Raspberry Pi is that it connects easily to a video camera, he noted. This means it could be used as a programmable platform for imaging — recording video — during a suborbital shot.

Real-time operating system

The device comes with a standard Debian Linux operating system, which may not be ideal for dealing with the speed of changes that need to be made in real-time rocket launches, Upton said. Rocket users may have to install a real-time operating system (RTOS), which could be Linux or proprietary.

Raspberry Pi
Raspberry Pi could be used as a lightweight device for controlling the avionics in sub-orbital rockets. Image credit: Raspberry Pi

However, there could be a conflict if the computer is being used for video recording.

"[An RTOS] potentially screws up the multimedia, because our multimedia set-up is very dependent on having Linux," Upton said. "There's a tension between those two."

"It could probably be resolved, but there's probably a chunk of engineering before you have a single chip which is doing both the engine control and taking pretty pictures as you're zooming around."

The Raspberry Pi chief noted that its use in rockets is still speculative; no one has done it yet, and established platforms already have lightweight avionics integrated. However, people building sounding rockets from scratch may be attracted to the sub-£30 computer for its open system design.

"You're not going to save that much by rolling up your Raspberry Pi with the rest of your avionics," Upton said. "But if you were doing a clean-slate design — if I was going to sit down today and build a sounding rocket — then I might well think about using a Raspberry Pi for a control system. Because it's there, and it's cheap, and I understand it." 

Using Raspberry Pi for sounding rocket software design could be attractive because of the transparency of the open-source development process, too.

"You can understand what's running right down to the metal on the ARM side," said Upton. "There's no hidden stuff. You know what every instruction is doing. 

"So if you need to know that your device is going to need some real-time constraint, you can know what's going on. You can know that lots of people looked at the code. Many eyes make bugs shallow — that's the phrase," he added.

Satellite of RasPi

More likely is that the Raspberry Pi will be used with satellites first. Upton has been talking to a team from the University of Leicester about putting the device's processing power to work with CubeSats, which are 10cm-cubed mini-satellites.

CubeSats, like the Raspberry Pi, tap into off-the-shelf components to put devices within reach of more people. As well as being a way to give undergraduates experience in building space-tolerant hardware, Upton sees the mini-satellites as having a role in educating kids and getting them enthusiastic about technology.

Raspberry Pi could be sent into orbit on CubeSat mini-satellites, such as the FUNcube. Image credit: FUNcube

"This thing's in orbit. When it comes over you, you can upload a message onto it. Then somebody else somewhere around the world can downlink the messages off it," he said. "So it's got that kind of fun thing that kids like."

The Raspberry Pi's most likely role in CubeSats is "simply running the systems on the device", according to Upton. 

"A CubeSat typically has got a bunch of solar cells and batteries and some radio hardware, maybe a heater to keep it warm in the Earth's shadow," he said. "There's a variety of bits and pieces of hardware in there, and you need some processing element to control those. Now, Raspberry Pi is a little bit overcooked for that. But once you've got it there, you could potentially think about doing imaging as well."

Beyond that, there could be a role for the device in ground stations. Upton also thinks people doing home-brew, ham radio-like communications with satellites could use a Raspberry Pi to receive signals from satellites. 

High hopes

For organisations working with kids, though, the most achievable way to head into the atmosphere are high-altitude balloons, according to Upton. Schools could send up a balloon to take pictures of the curve of the Earth, he suggests.

"You can get to 10 to 20 kilometres up, which, functionally, from a lot of points of view, is space," he said. "From a child's point of view, it's got almost all of the cool stuff of being in space, with a millionth of the cost of actually going into orbit."

"I will eat my hat if we don't see Raspberry Pi-based high-altitude ballooning in the next year, because it's such an obvious science-fair project," he said.

Upton acknowledges that we have yet to see any space-based projects with Raspberry Pi. However, though the device only went on sale in February, people have already come up with a huge range of uses and projects for it  — and the Raspberry Pi's multimedia capabilities could give it a boost.

"This is all incredibly speculative, because none of this has been done," Upton said. "The proof of the pudding will be when it's done, that's when we'll find out what people use it for. I suspect that the biggest asset with all of these on day one will be the fact that we can drive a camera."

Topics: Emerging Tech, Nasa / Space

Tom Espiner

About Tom Espiner

Tom is a technology reporter for ZDNet.com. He covers the security beat, writing about everything from hacking and cybercrime to threats and mitigation. He also focuses on open source and emerging technologies, all the while trying to cut through greenwash.

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  • How is this better than Arduino?

    For the use case that he is talking about, how is the Rapberry PI better than an Arduino or a Netduino which has a number of plug-in options (shields) for it and doesn't require an entire OS to run it?
    • More power, more libaries

      With that amount of power and linux you could hook up a usb webcam, interface with some digital sensors, grab a usb GPS and get that going.
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  • Qualified for extreme environments?

    I appreciate the intent/idea of using a platform like this for high altitude or celestial applications, but there is no mention of how or if any of the hardware could be qualified for environmental requirements – shock, vibe, temp, radiation, etc. Qualifying electronics for space and/or high altitude is no small fete. I was deeply disappointed that there was no mention of this. It’s as naïve as saying I have a really smart dog who can fetch me a beer from the fridge, so, now I’m really thinking he can a space dog.

    Are balloons do’able? Sure, to a point. But any of this hardware been qualified to very low temperatures? If you’re talking orbits, does one think anyone would want the platform to have been tested for radiation, extremely low temps, and not to mention hostile environment of launch? Let’s not believe we can manufacture reliable satellites with hardware purchased at the local electronics store.

    This isn’t the first compact, economical compute platform created. Let’s not get too crazy. Maybe the platform should be qualified for such applications before speculating. In the meantime, I need to take my dog to space camp.
    • Its possible if they can start shipping without waittimes

      I think its very possible. We really deeply examined using one this year for a sounding rocket program. My main hesitation would be the lack of screw holes. Mounting it would have probably involved some intense glue or some sliding board mounts.

      Honestly.. the main thing that kept us away was the huge wait time for this product. If we could have gotten guaranteed delivery, we would have done it :)
      • What the hell does "wait time" has to to with environmental feasibility?

        And BTW, glue out-gasses heavily .... and in space, out-gassing is the death of electronic devices. It is about as bad as direct contact of water with electronic devices.
        • For student sounding rockets.. wait time is everything

          When you have 12 months to go from thought to flight.. you can't wait 12 weeks for hardware to come in.

          I wasnt saying that glue was a good option.. but it IS used a lot in these projects..
  • That piece of crap will fry in a few minutes

    Sorry, but there is no way a non-rad hardened electronic device is going to survive in space ... specially a device built with cheap quality components.

    The moment this thing gets anywhere near the south-american magnetic anomaly, it will fry. And that will be multiple times in a day for any non-geo stationary satellite (after it reaches the target orbit ... it will still go thru the SAA while trying to reach the orbit).
    • Cubesats are in LEO

      I dont believe most cubesats have to deal too much with rad hardening as they are in LEO and not for very long before they burn up :)
  • ZDNet, what a slanted article. MS getting desperate about Linux/ARM.

    "...Microsoft (tried) to demonstrate an ARM CPU tablet. This is not new technology, but it squarely belongs to Linux. For over 8 billion ARM CPU's to be sold last year is testimony that ARM has been around for a long while. There are four free Operating Systems for the Raspberry Pi ARM computer. I have one, it sells for $35 from Element14. The Rasppberry Pi only works with Linux, it will NOT work with WinRT."

    "Also, as a testimony to what a garbage publication this is, check out their (this) new article on the Raspberry Pi. It's portraying it as some type of geek device that people are supposed to launch into orbit as a satellite. Now, when't the last time anyone you know launched their own satellite. Truth be known, Raspberry Pi is a Windows Killer, a real destroyer of Redmond. The slanted article doesn't even mention that it only costs $35.00 and has Broadcom on-board graphics that will play HD 1080P Blue Ray video. It's a full featured computer board and runs on any of four free Linux OS's installed on a bootable SD Card. It uses a plug in 5V cell phone charger as a power source, has USB for keyboard and mouse and uses HDMI to connect to a HD flat screen TV or monitor. The built-in Ethernet connector connects directly to your broadband." Plastic cases are available for around $14.

    Raspberry Pi is for everyone, the applications are absolutely endless, but reading ZDNet garbage, you would only think it's for outer space. I've been following articles and videos for Raspberry Pi since March and I've never seen a travesty like this.

    "Radio Shack has 60 smartphones on display and none of them are Microsoft. I've never ween a Windows phone for sale in any store and you are saying they are going to take over the world."
    • I have to admit

      I kind of agree with you on that.

      The Pi isnt really anything new, however. I've been wearing a touch-screen computer on my wrist for a year. A computer with an ARM-11 that runs Python, has full HD and even reads USB sticks - a Nokia E7 in a specialised cradle I built for it (I've only been waiting 30 years for a processor I could wear like a watch, so cool...) and the whole unit is a sight smaller than a Pi with a touchscreen and a 24hr battery at that.

      What makes the Pi special is that its completely open and that its marketed as a building block rather than a complete unit. The E7 is a pain in the arse to connect to my TV , with an adaptor cable, and its little keyboard is only replaceable with a bluetooth one, and it only runs Symbian. I've been using that for a long time as it evolved out of its Psion handheld cradle, but it doesnt compare to something like Arch or Debian.

      I love my Pi, but its an odd thing - I havent committed it to anything like I have any of the other machines I own. I guess if I had a bunch of them, I'd have an XMBC bridge setup - I tried it out like a lot of people did, but mostly its been on my workbench with the 'duinos, where it doesnt even have a display.
      Pis love robotics, theyre built for that. I even managed to cram freenect and openCV into an SD card so it can use a Kinect to see with, but again I havent decided what to make with that yet.

      I dont suppose ZDNet know what to make of it either, other than collect up the best of the crazies once on a while...
      • It's unique, that's for sure.

        I haven't had much time, but the HDMI connector is probably one of the best ideas going, especially with Blue-Ray resolution capability. Newer monitors have HDMI standard. It's hard to commit to using the Raspberry Pi at this stage of the game because you can only order one. I really don't want to dedicate it yet because perhaps in the future I would like to try another application. When it becomes possible to just order them in any quantity and have stock of them on hand, it would be much easier to create devices that you don't have to disassemble to re-use the device. i found a 2 AMP plug in power supply online at Linens n' Things for just over $8 with free shipping. It has a mini-USB connector compatible with the Rasppberry PI.

        I use Linux Mint at home and on my families' notebooks. It's very full featured and possibly they will start making an ARM version someday. I haven't had time to experiment with it yet, but I found a 32" LCD television that was discarded at the curb because of a broken mount. The TV works great and all I need to do is order a rear mount stand online for $27 to get it going. My desktop ATI graphics card has an HDM connection, so possibly I could use it as a monitor and with the Raspbery Pi.

        Good Luck, we'll just have to wait for the newness to die down so we can order larger quantities. Maybe they will come in a 6-pack for $100. :)
        • Ah curbware

          I'm not too proud to accepts gifts from the gods either, thats a nice find.

          And to you. Hey you should tell them, thats a great idea. I'm biding my time til I can scrounge at least another one... Would two Pi's make a Tau I wonder? :)
  • hello

    this is my opinion
    Deepak Kuman
  • Obviously it could only do light-duty stuff

    Consumer electronics could make it in space for a little while, maybe for a few minutes or hours. But the existing build wouldn't withstand any long-term exposure. There's nothing to prevent them from building a rugged and shielded version for extended duration missions.

    It would have to be paired with a military/space grade GPS module to provide location and time data, since the unit does not have a real-time clock and consumer GPS units are restricted to about 11 miles altitude readings.
    terry flores
  • How many nuts.....

    does it take to launch a standard, non-hardened computer into space?! Apparently this one expects it to survive more than two nanoseconds from when it boots up. Once the thing is above the Van Allen Belts, it'll fry. Not to mention the g-forces, and shaking to get it up there. Also, without any air, if the CPU did any hard work, it would fry, because there would be no air currents in a vacuum, which computers rely on to stay cool
    Apparently the author has no inkling of what it takes to launch a computer into space, and expect it to work.
    This might as well be a science fiction story!
  • Yes it is rocket science....

    You obviously haven't a clue Mr RocRizzo.

    1) If the RaspberryPi was used on a sounding rocket, I doubt very much that the Van Allen belts would be an issue unless it was launched near one of the poles. Sounding rockets go up and return without going into orbit. Check out Virgin Galactics website, they do a similar trajectory.

    2) Most organic based glues do out-gas in vacuum but the entire flight of a sounding rocket up, apogee and back down again to ground is measured in minutes not days. Assuming that they use rails to mount the board I doubt they would need glue. Even if they did the flight is too short to damage the board much.

    3) Out-gassing might obscure a camera lens so for that reason alone, they might want to use some other fastening technique.

    4) Since there are no moving parts, I doubt G forces would be much of an issue. The "hard drive" is a SD flash drive and there is no fan needed.

    5) Again, the short duration rules against heat buildup being much of an issue. Using a heat-sink on the SOC of the Raspberry Pi could eliminate heat issues. Although convection isn't possible at apogee, conduction always works as does radiative heat transfer. I've run mine for a few hours and its barely warm to touch.

    6) Shaking is an issue. Taping the flash drive in its socket would be advisable. Soldering the power and other connections to the Pi board would be suggested. Using anchored strain reliefs for the cable(s) would be advised.

    7) GPS is not an issue. The ISS, the Dragon, the Soyuz, the Space Shuttle all currently or have used GPS (or the similar Soviet system) as either primary or as backup guidance while in orbit and on the way to orbit.

    8) If you read more about space and rocketry then your trolls will be at least not laughably inept.
  • stealers!

    TOOK MY IDEA!!!!
  • Not orbit but into space

    On June 20th 2013 a Rocksat-c project from Eastern Shore Community College used a raspberry Pi. The launch was on a suborbital rocket from Nasa's Wallops Flight Facility.
    The PI went approximately 150km up was recovered and works fine. The only modifications were slightly enlarging the mounting holes and securing all the connectors with conformal coating. Next stop orbit!

  • Low cost, low risk...

    That is supposed to be the appeal of this project. It is meant for students and for educational purposes. I have no idea why everyone is complaining about this article, because at the time of the writing, they were probably still planning on 'how'.
    Orion Hood