The Internet has become an integral part of people's lives around the globe, but could the web exist in space? Researchers at NASA, not content to remain fixed to an Earth-bound system, are pushing the boundaries of network communications by testing what could one day amount to an interplanetary Internet.
Working in tandem with the European Space Agency (ESA), NASA has used its Disruption Tolerant Networking (DTN) program to test network operations that replicate some of the functions of the Internet, such as sending messages across long distances. In addition to messaging, last month astronaut Sunita Williams used the DTN system to control a tiny LEGO robot situated in a lab back on Earth from a special NASA-developed laptop on the International Space Station. The experiment was designed to simulate a scenario in which an astronaut located in an orbiting spacecraft might remotely control a robotic rover on the surface of a planet.
"The demonstration showed the feasibility of using a new communications infrastructure to send commands to a surface robot from an orbiting spacecraft and receive images and data back from the robot," NASA's Badri Younes said in a statement on the space agency's site.
"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, or from Earth using orbiting satellites as relay stations," Younes said.
According to NASA, the DTN system uses a system similar to Internet Protocol called a "Bundle Protocol," an analogue architecture that makes the idea of constructing an interplanetary Internet easier to envision. Eventually, the DTN system could become a primary means of communicating with deep space missions as well as a way to control unmanned missions from long distances.