An introduction to a science literacy and outreach project aimed at giving new communities access to space technology through public libraries.
In 2019, the John G. Wolbach Library at the Center for Astrophysics was awarded funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to encourage public engagement in space science, help new communities participate in satellite missions, and to fuel new research by improving access to scientific research artifacts and supporting their reuse. To do this work the team at Wolbach has partnered with the Libre Space Foundation1 to facilitate public engagement with space technology in public libraries. This talk will introduce attendees to this new initiative and showcase our plans for the future.
The goal of LSTN is to broaden participation in space-based science and engineering through novel educational opportunities and hands-on learning experiences with open satellite technology in public libraries. For the past two years, librarians at the Wolbach Library have collaborated with the Libre Space Foundation and four public libraries to develop and test the initial LSTN kit and prepare for a larger rollout of open ground stations.
The LSTN pilot began in April 2019. The goal of the pilot was to test the technological feasibility of providing public libraries with satellite ground stations capable of communicating with small satellites. Small satellites are increasingly important to astronomers and engineers, and are an approachable start to satellite communication with low-cost, and readily available technology.
The funding awarded by the Sloan Foundation allowed the LSTN team to install ground stations at five public libraries. The first two libraries, the Wolbach Library and the Cambridge Public Library were selected early in the process due to their proximity to the core project team. For the other three libraries, the LSTN team attempted to represent as many social, cultural, financial, technical, and geographic considerations as possible amongst the libraries participating in our pilot. To that end, the following set of qualitative and quantitative criteria were created for narrowing the list of possible pilot libraries:
Location is in Eastern Hemisphere or Southern Hemisphere or ‘rural’ per US Census Bureau
Country is in Medium or High category in HDI ranking
Country is politically stable
Library has an online presence
Possible Technical Support (University/College, radio club, etc.) within 20 miles
Economy of local area
Racial makeup of local area
Number of staff
Other projects the Library is involved in
Legal framework for operating ground station at this location
Desirability of location for addition to the SatNOGS network
Email address for Library/Librarian (or another method of writing to them online)
The primary factors were used to create lists of hundreds of potential public libraries around the world. This ‘long list’ was then narrowed down and prioritized with the criteria of secondary factors. The LSTN team then began reaching out to public libraries by email to gauge interest, and begin conversations about the project. A major obstacle was the complexity of international laws, regulations, and bureaucratic procedure. There are a number of libraries that would have made excellent candidates for this pilot which were eventually ruled out due to the possible time constraints of waiting on approvals from government officials.
After several months of work, the following libraries joined the LSTN pilot:
Biblioteca Municipală "B.P. Hasdeu", Chișinău, Moldova
Biblioteca de Santiago, Santiago, Chile
Cambridge Public Library, Cambridge, MA, USA
John G. Wolbach Library, Cambridge, MA, USA
Marathon Public Library, Marathon, TX, USA
The Libre Space Foundation (LSF) works with hundreds of individuals and organizations who have successfully created satellite ground stations and connected them to the LSF’s Satellite Network of Open Ground Stations (SatNOGS). Each of these ground stations is a unique mix of parts, and while certain parts are commonly used, the LSF did not have a standard ground station kit before the LSTN pilot began. The development of an initial kit was led by the LSF team and thoroughly tested by the team at Wolbach Library, with help from testers at MIT’s Space Exploration Initiative.2 To reduce complexity and the need for specialty tools such as a soldering iron, a few parts were exchanged after these initial tests were completed. The final kit that was sent to libraries in the pilot consisted of sixteen off-the-shelf parts that could be assembled into a functional satellite ground station operating in the UHF band. Assembling the kit is possible without technical knowledge, using only simple hand tools like screwdrivers and wrenches. The total cost is $875 USD. In addition to the parts, pilot libraries were sent all the tools needed for assembly, plus a laptop computer that could be used to set up and control the ground station.
Starting any new technology initiative, especially one designed for novices, will require extensive documentation. The LSTN Handbook is an evolving reference guide to help libraries in building, operating, and troubleshooting their SatNOGS-powered satellite ground station. What began as an 8-page primer called “Introduction to LSTN,” is now a 96-page handbook that includes hundreds of high-quality photographs detailing the assembly and operation of the LSTN kit. Version 1 of the handbook was published on April 21, 2020. A physical binder containing a copy of the Handbook was sent to each pilot library. In the future, materials for hands-on activities will be sent as new "chapters" that can be added to the Handbook binder over time.
The logistics of sourcing the parts and shipping them to the pilot libraries was no trivial feat. The only strategy that was feasible for the pilot was to source all the parts and tools for all five kits and have them sent to the Wolbach Library. This was a learning experience and took some time, and mid-way through the process, a different and more expensive antenna was chosen to facilitate faster delivery. In the end, the LSTN team could be sure every kit contained the same parts before packaging and shipping the kits out to the pilot libraries. FedEx was used to ship the kits internationally. In Moldova, it was impossible to pre-pay the customs fees, which made it difficult for our pilot library there to receive their package in a timely manner. In Chile, there were a number of issues and delays with shipping related to COVID-19 shutdowns. The pilot library in Marathon, Texas advised us to not use FedEx, but the USPS. This delivery went smoothly, and Marathon was the first library in the pilot (outside the Wolbach Library) to receive, assemble and install their ground station.
The COVID-19 pandemic created many challenges for the LSTN pilot. All of the activities that had been planned in the first year of the pilot were ‘in-person’ activities starting with a community build activity where members of each library community would have the chance to help assemble the ground station and learn more about how it works in the process. This idea had to be put on indefinite hold while new ideas that could be done remotely were developed. Communication was also a challenge due to the pandemic as our librarian contacts were often furloughed or working from home with no access to their physical libraries throughout much of the pilot period.
One expected challenge was language barriers with the communities at libraries in non-English speaking countries. To address this and also prepare LSTN for future cohorts, the project team investigated and launched a volunteer translation initiative starting with the LSTN Handbook. This initiative is hosted on the Weblate platform and is on-going.
The next stage of LSTN is to scale it to more libraries and develop inclusive science education programming with help from a number of partners including the STAR Library Network (StarNet), ARISA Lab, the National Federation of the Blind, the LSF, and The Mark. To this end, a proposal for additional funding has been submitted to NASA with the following goals:
Provide open satellite ground stations to under-resourced libraries across the country with the help of (STAR) Library Network (STAR Net)
Develop open resources and science education programs for librarians and their communities
Develop new digital infrastructure for learning with and managing library-based satellite ground stations in order to lower technical barriers for entry that disproportionately impact underrepresented groups
Work with open source software developers and project partners to improve existing systems and build new interfaces that ensure both accessibility and the usability of all aspects of the LSTN technology stack
Undertake iterative assessments to inform LSTN program development, understand our impact, and create a sustainability plan for LSTN’s future.
The LSTN team extends our gratitude to each of the libraries that have participated in our pilot, our project partners, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation for funding this initial endeavor. We look forward to continuing to work with you and building on what we have done so far.