NASA to put Net in the stars

NASA last week announced plans for a new initiative to extend its research efforts to the stars by developing an Internet-like network in space for future missions and potential human colonization on other planets.

Researchers soon will begin exploring ways that commercial Internet research can complement the research in space communications so that NASA can develop a new interplanetary Internet architecture— called the "Interplanet"— that could manage the long transmission delays and intermittent data links that plague deep-space communications.

Humans who may begin to explore and live on other planets would use the Interplanet to communicate with Earth and other interplanetary colonies, said Vinton Cerf, who is known as the "father of the Internet" because he developed the computer language that gave birth to the massive network.

Cerf, senior vice president of Internet architecture and engineering at MCI Communications, last week was named a distinguished visiting professor at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, where he will be working on designs for the Interplanet project.

Preparation Begins

"It is time to think beyond the Earth...in the solar system and beyond," Cerf said. "In preparation for what I hope will be a very richly colonized world or solar system perhaps 100 years from now, we're starting to ask ourselves how would we build an Internet that would support that vision in the future."

Although the work on the interplanetary network has just begun, Cerf outlined the basic model that may be used to design the network, which could beam communications between planets without first sending them back to Earth. Each planet or moon would have a network identical to the Internet of today that would run on standard Internet protocols, Cerf said.

The system also would contain a series of interplanetary gateways that would be used to bounce communications between planets.

Mars Mission Spacecraft

The hardware and software needed to construct the Interplanet will be deposited by Mars mission spacecraft scheduled to begin exploring the Red Planet in 2001.

NASA officials considered developing an Interplanet when they started looking for ways to overcome communications problems— mainly time delays— with traditional Internet standards that they encountered during space missions, said Adrian Hooke, manager of the NASA Space Mission Operation and Standardization program.

"Internet protocols do not work well over delays," Hooke said. "The whole philosophy of the Internet is a chatty environment. As the delays get bigger...the whole thing grinds to a halt. When you try to use the terrestrial protocols in space, you end up doing some pretty severe bending."

However, work on some of the problems that are beginning to sprout up with today's Internet could be applied to the unique problems of space communications, he said.

"As we solve the problem of nomadic computing...those kinds of problems can be translated to Mars where you have rovers," Hooke said. "As we populate other places in the solar system [with humans or robots], we ought to do it in a way that considers those remote places as little necks of the Internet."

Still, the researchers have several challenges to overcome before beaming e-mail from Mars to Venus. First, transmission of data in space will be delayed by minutes or hours because technology cannot yet transmit data faster than the speed of light. In addition, Cerf said his team has yet to come up with a plan for designating domain names or Internet addresses. Assigning ".mars" or ".earth" domain names has been bandied about by the researchers.

Despite the enthusiasm of the Interplanet researchers, some space and Internet analysts questioned the need for such a network in space, especially considering that human space colonization is still a remote possibility.

"It seems premature to be setting up an interplanetary communications system," said Robert Park, a physics professor at the University of Maryland and director of the Washington, D.C., office of the American Physical Society. "There is nothing in the [NASA] schedule for anything beyond low-Earth orbit. There are no plans for human exploration of the solar system."

Just Hype?

An Internet expert, who asked not to be named, characterized the work as "more headlines than substance," noting that the technology to launch an Internet in space already exists today.

"It's a bunch of hype," according to the source. "It would be very expensive. Why do it any time soon? There's no need."

However, Roy Williamson, a research professor with the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, described the research program as "very exciting."

"The concept of developing the communications capability ahead of [space missions] is a very reasonable concept," Williamson said. "Well before there are people living on Mars...we would need adequate communications for the exploration of Mars."

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