by February 6, 2003 0 comments

The Internet is slated to go over and above this world, the first target being Mars, to be followed by Jupiter and its moon,

This idea of taking the Internet to the space comes from the need for a low cost and high reliability inter-planetary network. It is not that there was no communication earlier. When countries started sending probes into the space, each used a unique set of protocols to communicate with the earth. This was done using the Deep Space Network (DSN) developed by NASA.

Since these probes communicated with the same ground stations, the need for a common protocol increased with time. Taking the Internet to space is the offshoot of this need for standardization. The InterPlanetary Network (IPN), a part of Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), is managing this program. 

But, how will this be implemented? One can plan how the Internet will work on the earth because of its fixed size and the fixed positions on which the data has to travel. Now, for the implementation on the planets, separate Internets on the planets will be connected through individual dedicated gateways. The individual networks can follow their own protocols, but these protocols will end at the gateway. By keeping the Internets of all the planets separate, engineers will not have to make long service calls.

Besides, they will not have to send a database of 20-million dotcom names to Mars periodically! 

These gateways will work on a bundle-based protocol, which will reside over the transport layer to carry data from one gateway to another. This gateway may not be on the surface of a planetary body; it can be a spacecraft in orbit, too. At the moment a bundle protocol will be needed because the data will need to travel huge distances, and sending small packets of data may not be feasible. Instead, this data will be collected and sent in a bundle, as a big burst of data, to the next gateway.

Regarding Mars, JPL plans to put many Microsats around it and a bigger MarsSat acting as a gateway to the earth. Managing the individual planet Internets is not a big problem as it can be managed in more or less the same manner as the earth’s network. It is developing the Interplanetary Backbone Network (IBN), however, which requires the biggest effort. The use of a standards-based technology in space will mean that the commercial vendors can be used to provide the equipment, which will drastically decrease the equipment and manpower cost needed in space communication. 

Sounds too good to be true? Well, there are thorns to content with, too. At the moment the communication links from the space to the earth are very cumbersome with three satellite clusters placed around the world. The biggest problem is the bandwidth. The other biggest hindrance is the astronomical distance between the two planets. This can result in long delays, for example, a round trip transmission from earth to Mars may exceed 40 mins. Even if the distance is managed, there can be instances when the communication is not possible at all when the planets are on the opposite sides of the Sun. Besides the natural factors of distance, we cannot overlook the potential of the hacker community, which is quite strong on our planet. Once this kind of technology is functional, its security will be a big issue. 

Geetaj Channana

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