New 'Space Internet' Under Tests on ISS

Experts at the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the University of Colorado in Boulder (UCB) are currently working on implementing a new communication system on the International Space Station that would essentially represent a new technology, which would extend the limits of the Internet in Earth's orbit and further beyond in the solar system. UCB expert Kevin Gifford explains that the new technology will set the foundations for a future “Interplanetary Internet,” which would control fleets of spacecraft destined for the Moon and Mars.

“Communication between spacecraft and ground stations has traditionally been over a single point-to-point link, much like a walkie-talkie. Currently, space operations teams must manually schedule each link and generate appropriate commands to specify where the data is to be sent, the time it will be sent and its destination. 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,” Gifford, who is a senior research associate at UCB BioServe Space Technologies, and also an Aerospace Engineering Sciences Department faculty member, adds.

The new technology has been named Disruption Tolerant Networking, or DTN, and a device carrying the new communication protocols has already been sent to the ISS in May, on the Commercial Generic Bioprocessing Apparatus, or CGBA, payload. It will send DTN-type messages named “bundles” to the Marshall Space Flight Center, in Huntsville, Alabama, which will then redirect them to the mission control center, at UCB's BioServe.

“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. But existing Internet protocols, where Internet hosts and computers are always connected, do not work well for many space-based environments, where intermittently connected operations are common,” Gifford shares.

“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,” the Vice President and Chief Internet Evangelist at Google, Vint Cerf, an expert that is widely regarded as one of the “fathers” of the Internet, says.

“With the new system, delays caused by spacecraft moving behind planets or solar storms disrupting communications are not a problem because the data packets are not discarded when outages occur, but instead are stored as long as necessary until an opportunity arises that allows them to be transmitted. 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,” Apollo 11 mission launch team veteran Adrian Hooke, who is the new Space DTN project manager for NASA, concludes.

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