NASA seeks input on celestial net

NASA is asking industry for its help in developing an Internet-like network to support end-to-end communications across the solar system.

In a Commerce Business Daily notice published this month, NASA asked for input on how the private sector could help the government bring to fruition a network that would enable astronauts, space probes or robots involved in space exploration to communicate across great distances and in adverse conditions. Announced by NASA a year ago, the "Interplanetary Internet" would depend heavily on existing commercial technologies and practices, according to agency officials.

"What we don't want to do is put all of our money into inventing communication methods over and over when we've got them already on Earth," said Adrian Hooke, manager of the Space Mission Operations Standards Program at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

NASA already uses the Deep Space Network—a series of antennas on three continents—to communicate with spacecraft. But as the agency plans a future of small, inexpensive missions, the Deep Space Network may not provide enough bandwidth or speed for running missions efficiently, according to observers.

NASA requested input specifically from companies developing products for today's Internet, particularly those involved in the emerging satellite and mobile computing environments; companies that provide telecontrol systems for remote automated equipment in hostile environments; companies that supply on-board and ground data handling equipment for the aerospace industry; and companies interested in sponsoring "highly visible spaceflight demonstrations of 'Internet in space' operations."

Hooke said the private sector could end up creating pieces of the Interplanetary Internet and then selling service back to NASA. "The industry right now plays a role in terms of supporting NASA," Hooke said. "It's quite feasible that a company could find rationale to invest in infrastructure."

Hooke said the network would enable humans and machines involved in space exploration to share information with one another, rather than relying on networks and people based on Earth. For example, a robot on Mars might observe a sudden flow of lava and then alert nearby probes to monitor areas around them to give scientists a comprehensive picture of the planet's geology. "We want to propagate the information [when] there's something of interest going on locally," Hooke said.

The robot's alert would be something like an e-mail, using Internet Protocol technology, Hooke said. Signals would be sent via radio or satellites rather than ground-based fiber. That method of sending information presents a challenge because fiber works more reliably for sending information over the Internet, Hooke said.

Robert Park, a physics professor at the University of Maryland and director of the Washington, D.C., office of the American Physical Society, said using commercial technology to create an Internet in space makes sense. "You want to be able to communicate with something when it's on the other side of the sun, and to do that you're going to have to relay your signals," Park said.

But he said he doubted that humans working in space would end up using the network. "There's not much reason to have human presence. Robots do just fine," he said.

Lyman Chapin, chief scientist at BBN Technologies, a division of GTE Corp., said his company would be interested in collaborating with NASA on the Interplanetary Internet project. But Chapin said relying on existing technology rather than developing new technology would create a network that wouldn't operate as well as NASA would like.

"It would be physically possible to do it today," but it would not be efficient, Chapin said. "It just wouldn't work very well."

Mike Heney, chairman of the Space Frontier Foundation—an organization that promotes the commercialization of space—said NASA should focus on planning and let industry execute the plans as much as possible. "When it comes to implementation, it should basically be left to people who make this [technology] work in wider realms, not just government," he said.

He emphasized the importance of increasing communications ability in space. "The Deep Space Network is pretty much fully loaded," he said. "We need more communications bandwidth to deep space."

In addition to the Interplanetary Internet, NASA also wants industry help in landing a robotic rover on the surface of an asteroid. The agency conducted a similar mission on Mars two years ago, when it landed the remote-controlled Sojourner robot on the planet's surface. The agency has requested from industry information about software, image-processing equipment and data management tools that might be used with the rover.


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