NASA and the ESA are testing a new communications protocol that will allow them to send messages and commands to space vehicles without a consistent connection.

The efforts were led by Vint Cerf, a vice president at Google, who was one of the founding fathers of the earthly Internet.

Cerf’s so-called Bundle Protocol tells machines to save incomplete data they’ve received, even if the transmission is disrupted by interference.

Then the complete data packets are forwarded to the next recipient, in a system NASA calls "store-and-forward."

Astronauts aboard the ISS are testing the new protocols for the first time. They were able to control a small Lego robot in Darmstadt, Germany.

During the tests, data was transmitted using NASA’s Deep Space Network in demonstrations occurring twice a week. The DSN is based in three deep-space communications facilities placed about 120 degrees apart across the globe: at Goldstone, in California’s Mojave Desert (shown here); near Madrid, Spain; and near Canberra, Australia.

"There are 10 nodes on this early interplanetary network," explains NASA. "One is the Epoxi spacecraft (shown here) itself and the other nine … simulate Mars landers, orbiters, and ground mission-operations centers."

The NASA and ESA team are now kicking off a long testing and research phase, which will challenge the system by using it to control several Earth-bound robots from the ISS.

NASA And Google Chief Test-Launch An Internet That Works In Space

Earlier this month, an astronaut on the ISS controlled a small Lego robot in Germany using Disruption Tolerant Networking--a communication protocol that can transmit information over millions of miles.

Scientists are discovering new things about our universe all the time--including the existence of Earth-like sister planets. But sending vehicles--even unmanned ones--to explore the distant reaches of the galaxy presents myriad challenges, including the lack of a reliable system of communicating with vehicles over (literally) astronomical distances. Solar storms, interference from planets, and other issues throw snags in the type of communication networks we use to send and receive information here on Earth. What’s a robot with deep-space wanderlust to do?

This month, NASA and the European Space Agency completed the first test of an Internet designed for outer space: Disruption Tolerant Networking, or DTN. Led by Vint Cerf, a vice president at Google, the team has spent the past decade developing an interplanetary Internet, impervious to the many challenges involved in transmitting information over many millions of miles. Internet historians will know Cerf as one of the original authors of this planet’s Internet. “The methods we use in the terrestrial Internet don’t quite work when we’re going at interplanetary distances,” Cerf explains in a NASA-produced video. “After quite a bit of work, we realized we needed to design a new set of communication protocols.”

Last month, NASA astronaut Sunita Williams tested those new protocols for the first time. From her perch on the ISS where she is commander, Williams controlled a small Lego robot in Darmstadt, Germany. "The experimental DTN we’ve tested from the space station may one day be used by humans on a spacecraft in orbit around Mars to operate robots on the surface,” explains NASA’s Badri Younes, “or from Earth using orbiting satellites as relay stations."

How does DTN differ from the Internet that enabled your computer to load this page? In simple terms, Cerf’s so-called Bundle Protocol tells machines to save incomplete data they’ve received, even if the transmission is disrupted by interference. DTN instructs recipient machines to save the bundles until they’re completely transmitted, no matter how long that takes. Then, the data packets are forwarded to the next recipient, in a system NASA calls "store-and-forward." “[It’s] similar to a basketball player passing the ball down the court to other players nearer to the basket, who hold it as the team assembles to await the final pass to a player who has a clear shot at the goal,” explains Adrian Hooke, manager of NASA’s Space DTN project at NASA headquarters.

Though it may be a while before you’re sending YouTube videos to your evil twin on a far-off alternate Earth, these early tests have huge implications for NASA and the ESA. For now, the team will continue the testing and research phase, challenging the system by using it to control several Earth-bound robots from the ISS.

[H/t A New Domain and NASA]

Add New Comment

10 Comments