VPNs could help astronauts send data

NASA astronauts working on a space shuttle or international space station eventually could use Internet-based systems to transfer data to controllers and researchers on Earth through a secure link.

Earlier this month, engineers from NASA's Space Communications Office and Veridian Trident Data Systems, Alexandria, Va., demonstrated that virtual private network technology could make vehicles in space appear as nodes on the Internet.

"NASA would like to take advantage of the terrestrial Internet and expand it into space," said Philip Paulson, NASA project manager from the Space Communications Office, which is based at Glenn Research Center (GRC), Cleveland.

A VPN lets an organization carve out a piece of the Internet and secure it using firewalls, which use encryption and other security mechanisms to ensure that only authorized users can access the network and that the data cannot be intercepted.

That solution addresses concerns about the security of transmissions during Internet-based space experiments, Paulson said. NASA would like to use the Internet to enable researchers to control their experiments from the ground, but it cannot be done unless the link is secure enough to protect multimillion-dollar satellites and the experiments on them from hackers.

If space experiments can be securely controlled from the ground, researchers will be able to directly interact with their experiments and receive data almost immediately, he said. Astronauts who should be spending time on other activities will no longer have to monitor experiments.

NASA chose Veridian-Trident to build a prototype firewall system for the experiment. The firm operates and maintains the National Reconnaissance Office's secure network and develops software for the military services.

During the demonstration, engineers in Houston used a laptop to remotely control a NASA wind tunnel at GRC through an Internet link via NASA's Advanced Communications Technology Satellite, Paulson said.

The satellite linked the transmission in about a quarter-second in each direction, said Eric Miller, Veridian-Trident's project manager. The demonstration used a 1.5 megabits/sec T-1 connection, but the goal is to achieve a 50 megabits/sec or higher link for the space shuttle or space station, he said.

The remote user needed only a World Wide Web browser to access the application. Veridian-Trident's VPN hardware creates a "pipeline" through the Internet to access the server in a secure environment, Paulson said. Users must enter a password before transmitting data, and the data itself is encrypted.

The space agency hopes to work with the international space station and space shuttle programs to install Internet-based products in the next few years. "The goal is to have every instrument on NASA spacecraft be IP-based," he said.

NASA also expects Internet-based products to lower the cost of experiments because they will not require custom hardware and software or specialized personnel.

Paulson said that approach dovetails with NASA's Consolidated Space Operations Contract, a 10-year, $3.4 billion contracted awarded to Lockheed Martin Space Operations Co., Houston, to consolidate and commercialize the agency's space and ground networks. One of the goals of CSOC is to leverage Internet technologies to reduce the number of people needed to control NASA networks.

NASA's move toward managing experiments via a VPN is good for the agency's applications, but industry and other government agencies are moving in that direction as well for terrestrial and satellite-based networks, said Warren Suss, a federal information technology consultant.

The Defense Department also is working on overcoming the challenges of using the Internet over satellite and ensuring the security of those transmissions, Suss said. Through the Commercial Satellite Communications Initiative, the military is using VPNs to communicate between the battlefield and the Pentagon, he said.

"This is on the leading edge," Suss said, but added that optimizing the satellite bandwidth and keeping costs down are other issues agencies need to consider. If NASA needs full-motion video capabilities to monitor space experiments from Earth, then the technology may introduce new costs, he said.

Related sites:

Space Communications Program Web site at NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio

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