NASA successfully tests deep space Internet

With Vint Cerf, NASA develops communication protocol that uses spacecraft as routers

With the help of Internet pioneer Vint Cerf, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has successfully tested its own deep space Internet.

Looking for a more efficient and cheaper way to communicate with spacecraft traveling throughout the solar system, engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) created a new communications protocol that uses space probes and orbiters as deep space routers.

"This will allow for quicker, more efficient, less costly communications," said Leigh Torgerson, an operations center manager at the JPL. "If you have a rover on Mars and an orbiter circling Mars, you can relay information from Earth through the orbiter and to the rover. [It's] just like [the orbiter] is a router on the Internet."

Torgerson said that Cerf, who co-designed the TCP/IP Internet protocol, is a senior scientist on the team that developed the new protocol. The project has been under way for 10 years, Torgerson added.

Scientists have used the new software protocol, dubbed Disruption-Tolerant Networking, to send dozens of images to and from a NASA spacecraft more than 20 million miles from Earth over the past month.

Protocols basically are a language used to communicate between systems on the Internet. "This is the first step in creating a totally new space communications capability, an interplanetary Internet," said Adrian Hooke, team lead and manager of space-networking architecture, technology and standards at NASA.

Torgerson noted that the so-called interplanetary Internet has to be resilient enough to withstand disruptions or disconnections common in deep space communications. With the new communications design, each network node is designed to hold onto data packets, instead of discard them, until a destination path can be found.

"The incentive to use Internet-like protocols over space links was to take advantage of automated routing," Torgerson told Computerworld. "With standard space-link communications, the ground sends commands to spacecraft to tell it what time and what data to send. It's very hands-on-intensive. Automated routing ... saves a lot of labor and costs."

Right now, NASA noted that it has 10 network nodes in its Interplanetary Internet.

Torgerson said he foresees it being critical when NASA launches its manned missions to Mars and even when it sends astronauts back to the moon.

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