THE BIG IDEA: ISS Installs Internet for Solar System

Voyager 1 leaving the solar system.
Voyager 1 leaving the solar system.



New Horizons spacecraft flies by dwarf planet Pluto and its moon Charon.Mars. Jupiter. Pluto. It seems that since last year, probes that people were skeptical about in what they had to offer in their exploration of our Solar System have now become celestial rock stars, sending back incredible, high resolution images the likes of which we have never seen before. It’s been an amazing time for space exploration, and we are reaping the benefits of these missions and looking to the stars no longer as far-off bodies of mass but potential destinations for manned exploration missions, the Red Planet being our most desirable first stop.

There is one problem with interplanetary travel that needs to be address straight away. When mankind reaches deeper and deeper into the Solar System, the delay between sending and receiving messages becomes longer. When New Horizons sends an image back to Mission Control, we’re looking at a four-to-five hour delay, and then once the connection is established it takes another hour to compile all the data into a high resolution image. So we have to wait hours to both send and receive any communications from a great distance, and when you consider how anxious people get when a text message is not returned in a timely fashion, it makes you wonder if astronauts of the future could cope with the challenges of interplanetary communications.

International Space Station, artworkTurns out the International Space Station (ISS) is working on that. They’re turning to the Internet for solutions. The internet, as we all know, works globally but that’s not big enough. Not for what they want to accomplish. NASA and the ISS want to network the solar system, and they want this network to handle those huge delays like the ones coming from communication with Pluto. NASA has developed the Delay/Disruption Tolerant Networking (DTN), and now has it running on the ISS. DTN is a protocol suite that has been scripted and designed to be amazingly resilient, even in the face of huge interruptions in connectivity as one might expect when communicating across the solar system. Following this protocol, the DTN network uses a “store-and-forward” technique that breaks down communication into “data chunks” that can be transferred independently of each other and assembled at their destination. This established DTN protocol and making the ISS for the lack of a better term a “hub” for this new protocol is the first piece in an overall solar system-wide network. The plan is to put similar DTN software services aboard future satellites, unmanned and (eventually) manned space craft exploring the solar system. DTN has been a major collaboration between several organizations and all of its implementations are available as open source code which, of course, was the way the original TCP/IP protocol was released so many years ago.

Now that’s another interesting aspect of this new protocol. NASA collaborated with one of TCP/IP’s creators, Vint Cerf. Cerf along with Bob Kahn developed TCP/IP in the summer of 1973 for DARPA as a networking system for the country that would be able to compensate and keep strategic locations connected in the case of a nuclear attack. This was the motivation behind the development of “packet switching” which keeps the Internet running today. What Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn did is extraordinary, but even more so was how they convinced the government this defense research needed to be open source and unclassified. All this led to the Internet and its protocols to become a worldwide standard. Quite an amazing political feat for the mid 1970s.  

It makes sense that if you want to create an Internet for the solar system, it’s a good idea to work with one of the Internet’s creators. Cerf is very optimistic about the possibilities of this new protocol suite. So am I. It will be fascinating to see just how quickly we can get an email from the bottom of the Hellas Impact Crater.



shurtz.jpgA research physicist who has become an entrepreneur and educational leader, and an expert on competency-based education, critical thinking in the classroom, curriculum development, and education management, Dr. Richard Shurtz is the president and chief executive officer of Stratfdord University. He has published over 30 technical publications, holds 15 patents, and is host of the weekly radio show, Tech Talk. A noted expert on competency-based education, Dr. Shurtz has conducted numerous workshops and seminars for educators in Jamaica, Egypt, India, and China, and has established academic partnerships in China, India, Sri Lanka, Kurdistan, Malaysia, and Canada.


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