With the help of internet pioneer Vint Cerf, NASA has successfully tested its own deep space net.
Looking for a more efficient and cheaper way to communicate with spacecraft traveling throughout the solar system, engineers from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory have created a new communications protocol that uses space probes and orbiters as deep space routers.
"This will allow for quicker, more efficient, less costly communications," says Leigh Torgerson, an operations centre manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "If you have a rover on Mars and an orbiter circling Mars, you can relay information from Earth through the orbiter and to the rover. [It's] just like [the orbiter] is a router on the internet."
Torgerson says that Cerf, who co-designed the TCP/IP Internet protocol, is a senior scientist on the team that developed the new protocol. The project has been underway for 10 years, Torgerson says.
Scientists have used the new protocol, dubbed Disruption-Tolerant Networking, to send dozens of images to and from a NASA spacecraft more than 32 million km from Earth over the past month.
"This is the first step in creating a totally new space communications capability, an interplanetary Internet," says Adrian Hooke, team lead and manager of space-networking architecture, technology and standards at NASA.
Torgerson notes that the so-called interplanetary internet has to be resilient enough to withstand disruptions or disconnections common in deep space communications. With the new communications design, each network node is designed to hold onto data packets, instead of discard them, until a destination path can be found.
"The incentive to use internet-like protocols over space links was to take advantage of automated routing," Torgerson says. "With standard space link communications, the ground sends commands to spacecraft to tell it what time and what data to send. It's very hands-on intensive. Automated routing saves a lot of labour and costs."
Torgerson says he foresees the new protocol being critical when NASA launches its manned missions to Mars, and even when it sends astronauts back to the moon.