nasa internet, deep space internet

NASA Developing ‘Deep Space Internet’

November 21, 2008 07:02 AM
by Denis Cummings
NASA has successfully tested software that uses Internet technology to communicate between Earth and spacecrafts.

‘Deep Space Internet’ Passes First Test

NASA has completed a preliminary month-long test of a deep-space communications network that functions like the Internet. The software, called Disruption-Tolerant Networking (DTN), would improve the efficiency of communication between spacecrafts and control centers on Earth.

Currently, communication requires NASA workers to schedule communications and send messages themselves. “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, in NASA’s press release. “With standardized DTN, this can all be done automatically.”

There are several challenges in adapting the Internet for use in space, most importantly the distance between contacts. The standard Internet protocol, TCP/IP, assumes a constant connection and works by communicating back and forth until the receiver has received all of its information.
In space, however, it takes between three and a half and 20 minutes for a message to be sent, making frequent back-and-forth communication inefficient. Furthermore, disruptions and disconnections are common due to the massive distances and the movement of planets.

The DTN is programmed to overcome these problems by having the sender hold onto information until it can contact the receiver. Therefore, back-and-forth communication is kept to a minimum and information is stored in case of disruption. “The nodes themselves can take care of making sure the data moves progressively from the source to its destination,” said Adrian Hooke, team leader at NASA Headquarters, to New Scientist.

NASA has called the tests, carried out on the Epoxi spacecraft, a success. The next round of testing is scheduled to begin next summer, when the DTN software will be installed in the International Space Station.

Background: Deep Space Network

NASA’s current method of communicating with spacecrafts is the Deep Space Network, first developed in 1958. The future viability of the international network, which uses antennae based in Barstow, Calif.; Madrid, Spain; and Canberra, Australia, was questioned in a 2006 Government Accountability Office report.

The report said that the Deep Space Network had “deteriorating infrastructure and a limited capacity to serve additional missions. System infrastructure, which has been marked by extensive deferred maintenance, is aging and is likely to become increasingly fragile and subject to breakdown at a time when demand is anticipated to increase.”

The DTN may help to reduce traffic on the aging Deep Space Network; NASA is asking other countries to accept the DTN so it can be used internationally.

Key Player: Vint Cerf

NASA developed the DTN over the last 10 years with help from Vint Cerf, one of the “Fathers of the Internet” who helped design the standard TCP/IP protocols. He currently works as an Internet evangelist for Google, determining which new technologies should be further developed by Google.

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