NASA tests space communications modelled on the internet

Scientists have successfully tested the first deep space communications network modelled on the internet, according to American space agency NASA.

Working as part of a NASA-wide team, engineers from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California used software called Disruption-Tolerant Networking, or DTN, to transmit dozens of space images to and from a NASA science spacecraft located about 20 million miles from earth, the agency said.

"This is the first step in creating a totally new space communications capability, an inter-planetary Internet," said Adrian Hooke, team lead and manager of space-networking architecture, technology and standards at NASA headquarters in Washington.

According to the space agency, NASA and Vint Cerf, a vice president at Google, partnered 10 years ago to develop the DTN software protocol.

NASA said this protocol sends information using a method that differs from the normal Internet's transmission-control protocol/Internet protocol, or TCP/IP, communication suite, which Cerf co-designed. Unlike TCP/IP on earth, the DTN does not assume a continuous end-to-end connection.

In its design, if a destination path cannot be found, the data packets are not discarded. Instead, each network node keeps the information as long as necessary until it can communicate safely with another node.

Scientists say that the inter-planetary Internet must be robust to withstand delays, disruptions and disconnections in space. Also, glitches can happen when a spacecraft moves behind a planet, or when solar storms and long communication delays occur.

The delay in sending or receiving data from Mars takes between three-and-a-half to 20 minutes at the speed of light, NASA highlighted.

DTN demonstration

According to the space agency, engineers began a month-long series of DTN demonstrations in October. Data were transmitted using NASA's Deep Space Network in demonstrations occurring twice a week. Engineers used NASA's Epoxi spacecraft as a Mars data-relay orbiter.

This month-long experiment is the first in a series of planned demonstrations to qualify the technology for use on a variety of upcoming space missions.

In the next round of testing, a NASA-wide demonstration using new DTN software loaded on board the International Space Station is scheduled to begin in the middle of next year.

In the next few years, the inter-planetary Internet could enable many new types of space missions, NASA added.

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