Become a Rocket Scientist With Open Source

Short Form


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.

Asterank was later used to create this meteor showers ( visualization, which is used by scientists at the SETI Institute and NASA to better understand meteor streams in our solar system. The end result has been more visibility into interesting meteor survey results. This is just one of the many open-source projects derived from Asterank (there are many other games and simulations).

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, science

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.

I've linked some videos below of similar talks. 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 at Google. Previously, he developed spacecraft avionics and ground control systems at Planetary Resources. In 2012, Ian created Asterank, a collection of computational tools and visualizations used to analyze asteroids and evaluate potential missions, acquired by Planetary Resources in 2013. Ian open-sourced the entire Asterank and other related work on space analysis with the goal of making aerospace more open to software engineers and hackers. Prior to working in space, Ian was a lead engineer at a startup acquired by Google. He holds a degree in computer science from Dartmouth College.

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