Sci-fi meets Wi-Fi: Internet in outer space

U. COLORADO (US)—A system that would extend Internet capabilities into outer space and across the solar system is being tested on the International Space Station.

Researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder are working with NASA to develop a new communications technology called Disruption Tolerant Networking, or DTN, that will enable NASA and other space agencies around the world to better communicate with international fleets of spacecraft on future explorations.

“Communication between spacecraft and ground stations has traditionally been over a single point-to-point link, much like a walkie-talkie,” says Kevin Gifford, a senior research associate at UC Boulder’s BioServe Space Technologies and a faculty member in the aerospace engineering sciences department.

“As the number of spacecraft and links increase and the need to communicate between many space vehicles emerges, these manual operations become increasingly cumbersome and costly,” says Gifford.

Existing Internet capabilities, where hosts and computers are always connected, do not work well for space-based environments, Gifford explains, because intermittently connected operations are common.

“Highly automated future communications capabilities will be required for lunar habitation and surface exploration that include passing information between orbiting relay satellites, lunar and planetary habitats and astronauts on the surface,” he adds.

In May, the new data communications protocols were installed on a BioServe payload on the International Space Station to send messages known as bundles. Beginning in June, the bundles were sent from the space station to Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. and then to a mission control center at BioServe.

The new DTN “Bundle Protocol” was developed by the Internet Research Task Force based on initial work started more than 10 years ago in a partnership between NASA and Vint Cerf, vice president of Google Inc.

“While conventional Internet protocols may work well in short-delay, richly connected terrestrial environments, they quickly degrade in long-delay and highly stressed wireless data communications scenarios that are already beginning to be encountered at the edges of the Internet, which is where space tends to begin,” Cerf says.

Cerf’s counterpart in the Space Communications and Navigation office at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., is Adrian Hooke, a veteran of the Apollo 11 mission launch team. Hooke is the manager of NASA’s new Space DTN project and is a pioneer in the development of international space networking standards.

The new system will eliminate the problem of delays caused by spacecraft moving behind planets or solar storms disrupting communications, Hooke explains, because the data packets won’t be discarded when outages occur, but will instead be stored as long as necessary.

“This ‘store-and forward’ method is similar to a basketball player passing the ball down the court to other players nearer to the basket, who have a clear shot at the goal,” adds Hooke.

“By improving data timeliness associated with robotic and human-tended missions, NASA is reducing risk, reducing cost, increasing crew safety, improving operational awareness, and improving science return,” says Gifford.

Multiple NASA centers are involved in the research, including the Marshall Space Flight Center, the Johnson Space Center, the Glenn Research Center, the Goddard Space Flight Center, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University.

NASA and UC Boulder also are exploring ways to extend the experiments on the International Space Station to involve the European Space Agency and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency.

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