Surf the Internet in Space

by CXOtoday Staff    Nov 19, 2008

NASA has successfully tested the first deep space communications network modeled on the Internet. Working as part of a NASA-wide team, engineers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, used software called Disruption-Tolerant Networking (DTN) to transmit dozens of space images to and from a NASA science spacecraft located about 20 million miles from Earth.

“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 Headquarters.

The DTN sends information using a method that differs from the normal Internet’s Transmission-Control Protocol/Internet Protocol, or TCP/IP, communication suite. The Interplanetary Internet must be robust to withstand delays, disruptions, and disconnections in space. Glitches can happen when a spacecraft moves behind a planet, or when solar storms and long communication delays occur. The delay in sending or receiving data from Mars takes between three-and-a-half to 20 minutes at the speed of light.

Unlike TCP/IP on Earth, the DTN does not assume a continuous end-to-end connection. In its design, if a destination path cannot be found, the data packets are not discarded. Instead, each network node keeps the information as long as necessary until it can communicate safely with another node. This store-and-forward method means information does not get lost when no immediate path to the destination exists. Eventually, the information is delivered to the end user.

“In space today, an operations team must manually schedule each link and generate all the commands to specify which data to send, when to send it, and where to send it,” said Leigh Torgerson, manager of the DTN Experiment Operations Center at JPL. “With standardized DTN, this can all be done automatically.”

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