2005: A Cisco Space Odyssey

With Cisco having conquered the terrestrial router market it seems only natural that the networking giant should look to boldly go where no router company has gone before and that is into space.

Back in 2003, a modified version of Cisco’s Mobile Access Router (you can see a picture of it here) was strapped into the UK’s Disaster Monitoring Consortium satellite and fired into space, heralding the birth of Cisco Low Earth Orbit (CLEO) project. It has just completed its second year orbiting the Earth.

By adapting existing off-the-shelf routers, and other networking equipment and using IP as a standard protocol for communication on satellites the aim is to lower the cost of building satellites and improve their communication with existing data networks on Earth.

The use of on-board switching and routing, for example, would allow for far more flexible and intelligent satellite communication than under the traditional “bent pipe” architecture, which sees a signal sent from a ground station, up to the satellite, and back down to a point on Earth that has already been pre-determined from the ground.

CLEO passed its first major test last year at NASA's Glenn Research Centre at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California in June 2004, where mobile operators using a laptop where able to download images from the satellite and gain real-time access to the on-board router over IP. It was the first demonstration of commercial network device being used in space.

Of course space is a demanding environment which is why satellite companies have traditionally stayed away from off-the-shelf technology: sending an engineer round to fix a hardware failure is not an option.

But as the head of Cisco’s space group, Richard Sanford, points out “Satellite users and operators are already using IP in their networks, so it makes sense that the satellites themselves use IP, too”. The revolution towards space-based networks is just beginning.

The CLEO project is on-going and you can read more about at Cisco and Techworld.