OpenLST, an Open Radio Solution for SmallSats

Alasdair Allan
3 min readAug 15, 2018

Over the next few years the number of small satellites in orbit is going to rise exponentially. With multiple companies, including SpaceX and OneWeb planning Low Earth Orbit communications networks, thousands of smaller satellites are going to get boosted into orbit throughout the next decade.

This means that right now there is a fierce war going on amongst the new entrants in the launcher market for the the growing small satellite market, with New Zealand-based RocketLab firmly in the lead.

Launch of the Electron from New Zealand. (📷: Rocket Labs USA)

But while the prospective communications constellations may take the headlines there are other, abet somewhat smaller, constellations already in orbit. Which is why it’s interesting seeing a company like Planet Labs, who are neck deep in this highly competitive space, release open hardware.

The OpenLST radio board. (📷: Planet)

Since they started in a garage, Planet Labs have built a constellation of over 150 Earth observation satellites in under five years, causing a serious disruption in the Earth observation market as they went.

“To encourage innovation in radio communication, Planet is releasing OpenLST, an open radio solution for communicating with remote instruments, vehicles, and stations using low-cost commercial components. OpenLST builds on experience gained from Planet’s UHF radio, which has been successfully integrated and used on over 200 satellites in space. Using this radio, Planet has contacted 100 percent of its successfully deployed Dove CubeSats.”

Designed with existing readily available, and relatively inexpensive, off-the-shelf parts, Planet’s OpenLST radio should help lower barriers to entry for small satellite projects.

First two Planet Labs cubesats launched with the NanoRacks Deployer in 2014. (📷 NASA)

With future smallsats increasingly going to be equipped with propulsion systems, the recently suggested “no encryption, no fly” rule at this year’s SmallSat meeting in Utah, will likely put pressure on smallsat builders to standardise around a smaller number of more secure radio designs. Planet’s release of the OpenLST design might well speed that process along.

“The OpenLST transceiver is approximately six by five centimeters with a mass of 20 grams. This radio operates on the UHF band and provides 3.5 kilobit per second user data rates. The design also provides time-of-flight ranging that can be used to estimate link distance.”

The hardware design of the OpenLST has been released under a Creative Commons license (CC-BY-SA 4.0), with the software available under the GNU General Public License (GPL). However Planet hasn’t taken the normal step of throwing the design files, and software up onto Github. Instead to get started you’ll need to clone the project’s repo from their company Git server.

git clone --recursive https://www.planet.com/open/openlst.git
git clone --recursive https://www.planet.com/open/openlst-hw.git

However be aware, while the radio is open, U.S. export laws still mean that Planet employees are “…not permitted to discuss or support development of external programs or related development of the radio.”

So if you’re thinking of putting one together, you’re going to be on your own.

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