NASA project calls for taking the Internet to Mars

NASA project calls for taking the Internet to Mars<@VM>Stats at a glance

The Interplanetary Network will use PCs, servers, satellites and ground stations to link the Earth's Internet to networks on Mars and other planets.

JPL teams with industry to develop Interplanetary Network for communications and navigation

By Frank Tiboni

GCN Staff

In 2012, U.S. astronauts could use the Internet to communicate from the Martian surface to Mission Control at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, if designs for the Interplanetary Network go as planned, a NASA official said.

NASA received $500,000 from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in August for the IPN's architecture phase. The agency envisions a network of PCs, servers, satellites and groundstations that will connect the Earth's Internet to networks on or around Mars and other planets, said Adrian J. Hooke, NASA's lead IPN researcher at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

A public-private partnership consisting of JPL, MCI WorldCom Inc., Mitre Corp. of Bedford, Mass., Global Science & Technology Inc. of Greenbelt, Md., and Sparta Inc. of Columbia, Md., formed last month to design the IPN, Hooke said.

'The team will identify the architecture and that of the backbone of the IPN,' said Hooke, who also serves as manager of NASA's Space Mission Operations Standards Program.

NASA does not know which PCs, servers, satellites and groundstations will make up the IPN. The team members have until next summer to come up with the network architecture, Hooke said.

A new protocol

But the agency does know the protocol and the infrastructure it will use to communicate in deep space, he said. The Internet's File Transfer Protocol and TCP/IP do not promise reliable file transfer over deep space's long distances.

Since 1992, NASA and the Defense Department have worked on developing and adapting an Internet standard for space. The Consultative Committee for Space Data Systems and the Space Communications Protocol Standards have produced a stack of communications protocols that operate very effectively using space radio channels, such as S-band, X-band and Ka-band, he said.

With Mars missions scheduled for 2001, 2003 and 2005, the beginnings of the IPN's architecture will take shape. The missions will send orbiters, satellites and landers to search for ancient life on the red planet, Hooke said.

By 2007, the missions should provide an initial communications and navigations infrastructure around Mars. Soon after, NASA and the European Space Agency will build an infrastructure on the planet's surface, he said.

Manned Mars missions could begin as early as 2012. But the question at NASA is whether the agency should send up two explorer astronauts or smart robots, Hooke said.

Logistical concerns, such as fueling and supporting a long-term manned mission, and price'it is 100 times more expensive to send a manned mission to Mars than an unmanned mission'will drive the decision, he said.

The spacecraft, communications satellites and land rovers could serve as the IPN's infrastructure.

Although it's too early to describe the IPN, Hooke has hashed out a rough architecture consisting of deployed solar system Internets, interplanetary gateways, a stable interplanetary backbone and an inter-Internet dialog, he said.

With a local Internet supported by hardware in and around Mars, the network will connect to an interplanetary gateway'a powerful server'on either a satellite or the planet. The gateway would communicate with Earth's interplanetary gateway via a wireless backbone, Hooke said.

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