NASA Takes the Internet to Outer Space

With the advancements in technology available today, you can make contact with just about any place you'd like within a few seconds, thanks to the border-crossing and barrier-smashing power of the Internet. If it's Mars you're trying to reach, though, your best chance is more likely to come on the end of a probe than a DSL line. That may well change, however, as scientists at NASA have just completed testing new technology aimed — quite literally — at blasting the Internet out of this world.

Development of the new technology, officially designated Disruption-Tolerant Networking but already widely known as the "Interplanetary Internet," has by no means been an overnight achievement. It is the result of a ten-year partnership between NASA's famed Jet Propulsion Laboratory — responsible for a laundry list of historic missions including the Viking, Voyager, Galileo, Magellan, and Mariner missions — and legendary computer scientist Vint Cerf, the co-designer of the TCP/IP protocol suite often called the "father of the Internet."

A unique aspect of the DTN protocol, required by the unpredictable conditions of deep-space communication, is its handling of connection interruption. Protocols like TCP/IP assume that there will be a continuous, uninterrupted connection for the full-length of the transmission; should the connection break down, the packets are discarded, and data loss results. DTN, however, does not pass on information to the next node until it knows it can do so safely; it will hold the information as long as is needed to establish communication with another node. According to NASA engineers, DTN will greatly simplify communications, allowing automation of complex processes which now must be manually performed.

The tests, which took place over the past month, simulated communications between a lander on Mars, an orbiter, and Earth-based ground control, utilizing NASA's unmanned EPOXI spacecraft — currently en-route to study extrasolar planets and Comet Hartley 2 — to stand-in as the Mars orbiter. The tests concluded successfully, with dozens of images being beamed across the 20 million miles between EPOXI and Earth. NASA will begin a new round of tests next year utilizing DTN aboard the International Space Station.

If testing continues successfully, NASA will eventually be able to utilize DTN for complex multi-craft missions, for communications on return missions to the Moon, and in due time, for manned missions to Mars.

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