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With Code.Nasa.Gov, Agency Steps Up Hunt for Its Open-Source Software Projects

BY Nick Judd | Tuesday, January 17 2012

With a new initiative, NASA explores its open-source projects. Image: Artist's concept of KOI-961 star system. NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Kepler space observatory slowly trails further and further behind the Earth as it orbits the Sun, scanning a sliver of the galaxy in search of Earth-like planets. A specially designed telescope, 0.95 meters in diameter, the Kepler instrument, per NASA, "stares at the same star field for the entire mission and continuously and simultaneously monitors the brightnesses of more than 100,000 stars for the life of the mission—3.5 or more years."

Over time, NASA releases data from Kepler — an unprecedented look at our universe, other planets and star systems — on a decidedly terrestrial web portal, data.nasa.gov. It's part of a broader effort at NASA to make the agency's work more accessible, which is itself part of the Obama administration's promise to make government more open.

Not everyone agrees that the Obama White House has done everything around open government that it said it would do. But earlier this month, NASA lengthened the list of things that federal agencies could do. In addition to releasing data, like those that are gleaned from the Kepler space observatory, NASA launched code.nasa.gov, a central repository intended to eventually link out to every last open-source project maintained by people within the U.S. space agency.

"We are a very distributed agency, we have people working at 10 field centers across the country," said Sean Herron, who maintains code.nasa.gov, in a phone conversation today. "A lot of the time, open source software across the agency can be reused for other means.

"Because we are so distributed, because we have so many people working on so many different projects in so many agencies, having that kind of platform for collaboration ... is hugely beneficial," he said later on in our conversation.

Since launching the site, NASA officials said, several maintainers of open-source projects have come forward asking how to get their work listed there.

"We had people at Goddard working on the Goddard mission analysis tool, people from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory talking about getting their stuff on there," said William Eshagh, who is working on Open Government and the Nebula Cloud Computing Platform out of the NASA Ames Research Center and was part of the team that built code.nasa.gov.

That's part of the point: By creating a place to find software built by people within NASA with code that anyone can download, modify and use, agency officials hope that more developers will get in touch to share the work they're doing.

"This is just as much of a fact-finding mission as it is a chance for us to share what we're doing," Herron said.

NASA also hopes to put its work on display for the open-source community. When it released the source for its Nebula cloud computing technology, Eshagh told me, the agency had no idea what people would use the code to do — but it became half of the formula that would, with Rackspace, create OpenStack, technology allowing anyone (with the time, skill and equipment) to build an open-source cloud computing environment. A former NASA executive then took that idea and ran with it to launch Nebula, a company that will provide open-source cloud appliances built to open standards. Now that NASA isn't Nebula's (the software, not the company) only user, he added, NASA developers don't need to work as hard to keep the code up to snuff — other people in the community improve upon it as they use it, too.

Last March, NASA held an event on government open source in the hopes of bringing industry leaders in touch with the agency and helping its officials make up their own minds about how to pursue open-source development. The agency hopes host another event this year with a more external focus — and that this project might spur officials from other agencies to join the conversation and collaborate on the event.

"We've been talking to a few [agencies]," Nicholas Skytland, of NASA's open government initiative, told me. "We would be really interested in hearing from others that maybe we haven't been talking to.

"Our general goal is to bring together other agencies that are interested in doing open source software development," he said later on in the conversation.

In late December, the Kepler space telescope found Kepler-22b, about 2.4 times the radius of Earth and orbiting a Sun-like star about 600 light-years away. It was the first planet Kepler has found in a region where liquid water might exist on the planet's surface, NASA announced at the time. Like the search for Earth-like planets — a mission that had been proposed several times before Kepler was approved — the effort to foster open-source development inside government has been a long slog, with a protracted wait for incremental results. That didn't stop NASA from launching Kepler in 2009. And the potential to reduce duplicate work and allow unexpected creativity inside government is enough for NASA to shift to an open-source focus ahead of other agencies.

"Code.nasa.gov is the start of something really big for the agency," Skytland said. "We're trying to change the way we do software. We want to be a default-open agency.

"We feel a lot of NASA's biggest assets, especially to the American public, are its data and its open-source software," Skytland added later on in the conversation.