Becoming a Rocket Scientist With Open Source

Short Form
Scheduled: Tuesday, June 23, 2015 from 2:30 – 3:15pm in B301


The new space industry is expanding rapidly, with huge opportunities for open-source contributions. This talk focuses on the case study of Asterank, software that makes space data easier to access and explore. Its analysis and visualization tools have been used in government, private industry, and schools. The project has made public space data more open and usable for millions of people.


Asterank ( is open-source software that uses public data from organizations like NASA JPL to analyze and discover new asteroids in our solar system.

It computes ideal mission trajectories, close approaches, and composition estimates, showing the results in beautiful interactive displays. These immersive visualizations are built in webgl and are scientifically accurate.

We’ll learn how Asterank was built, including details on how open source enabled backend data analysis and the frontend visualizations. The talk will also describe challenges, how Asterank caught the attention of NASA and private space companies, and how it became part of Planetary Resources, which builds asteroid mining spacecraft.

I’ll also go into some detail on Asterank Discover, an open source app that crowdsources the search for asteroids across terabytes of imagery and has found hundreds of potential new asteroids.


javascript, webgl, space

Speaking experience

I’ve given a handful of talks on the subject of Asterank, in places ranging from generalist conferences, to educational settings, industry conferences, and NASA.

Here’s a video. My talk at Open Source Bridge will include more interesting technical details (this was for a non-technical audience), and specifically touch upon the open-source aspects (eg. how it benefitted from other open source projects, contributions, and what I’ve learned about the impact of open source in the new space industry):


  • Biography

    Ian Webster is a software engineer who works on projects related to civics, education, and health. He leads engineering at Zenysis, where he builds health data analysis software for governments of developing countries.

    Previously, Ian worked at Google and also formed a software consultancy that counts NASA, SETI, and private aerospace companies among its clients. He is the creator of Asterank, an open-source analysis and visualization platform used to evaluate space missions, acquired by Planetary Resources. At Planetary Resources, he built ground and on-board systems for spacecraft.