"Space Internet" to Link Worlds by 2011?

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
July 9, 2009

For all its might, the World Wide Web is still limited to, well, our world.

But that's quickly changing with the advent of an "interplanetary internet" that planners say will revolutionize space communication.

The Disruption Tolerant Networking (DTN) system, which entered another phase of testing this week, will allow astronauts to Google from the moon or tweet their observations from space.

But DTN provides far more than a connection to check your email. It's also essential for simplifying space command and control functions—such as power production or life-support systems—crucial for future space initiatives.

(Related: "'Rocket NASCAR,' Moon Base Part of 50-Year Space Vision.")

"You need an automated communications technology … to sustain planetary exploration on the scale that NASA and others want to perform over the next decade," said Kevin Gifford, a senior research associate at BioServe Space Technologies at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

"DTN enables the transition from a simple point-to-point network, like a walkie-talkie, to a true multimode network like the Internet."

After a decade of development DTN has advanced quickly over the past year, and NASA missions are planning to adopt the network by 2011. In November 2008 NASA test-drove the network by sending space images to and from the EPOXI spacecraft, some 20 million miles (32 million kilometers) from Earth.

DTN protocols were also installed on the International Space Station in May, and summer testing began the first week of July.

Houston, We're Fixing a Problem

Though tweeting astronauts have gotten a lot of press, "the reality is that they [don't really] tweet or have browsing capability on the International Space Station," explained Gifford, who is part of a large, cooperative DTN effort that has also included NASA and Internet veterans.

"Right now they actually voice down a simple blurb, and the tweet is operated manually from Houston," he said. In fact most current space communication involves humans manually scheduling each and every link, sometimes weeks or even months in advance for distant spacecraft, and dictating exactly which data are sent and when.

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