Why NASA’s Deep Space Internet Innovations Matter
Since opening its doors in 1958, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has created entirely new products to support its mandate of exploration — such as open-cell polyurethane- plastic, better known as memory foam — and improved on existing technologies, including eye-movement trackers, based on space shuttle docking technology, for LASIK surgery.
The result of humanity’s attempt to reach for and beyond the stars is a market full of product and technological innovation.
One of the lesser-known innovations to emerge from NASA’s pursuit of space exploration is the agency’s Deep Space Internet, which launched in 2008 as a way to improve communication beyond Earth's orbit.
Networking in Infinity and Beyond
On Earth, Internet connections depend on the Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP), which assumes a continuous connection at each terminal transmission point. If data goes missing, the sender and the recipient nodes stay in contact until all information is received. In space, however, data transmission is not so simple.
Constant power outages, the movement of planets and the sheer time it takes radio transmissions to reach even “nearby” objects prompted NASA to partner with Google in 1999 to develop an alternative, according to a press release from the agency. Known as disruption tolerant networking (DTN), this protocol differs from TCP/IP in that it doesn’t require continuous connection.
Instead, data packets are sent along a string of network nodes. Once a node receives packets, it stores them until a secure connection with its destination can be established. In October of 2008, DTN was used to successfully transmit data from series of nodes on Earth to the Extrasolar Planet Observation and Deep Impact Extended Investigation (EPOXI) spacecraft.
This eliminated the need for ground crews to manually identify transmission times. Now, any data sent to a node can be transmitted automatically, once a connection is established.
How Networking in Space Has Changed IT
Although DTN was a technological breakthrough, it hasn't seen substantial adoption here on Earth. In large measure, this comes down to simplicity — TCP/IP provides “good enough” performance when we're not talking about transmitting over millions of miles and around massive planets.
But other aspects of Deep Space Internet are gaining ground. In 2010, NASA started work on laser-based communication to enhance transmission rates. Currently, the Curiosity spacecraft on Mars can achieve only six megabits per second (Mbps), but laser technology could mean speeds of anywhere from 600 Mbps to one gigabyte per second (GBps).
On October 17 of this year, NASA began its first laser communications test, using the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE). If successful, the system will deliver improved speed, using 25 percent less power and only half the weight of current radio devices.
Improving the Internet Back on Earth
As NASA beefs up its Deep Space Internet, several earthbound innovations are also in the works to affect the way we use network technology. Several companies have developed gigabit Internet hubs that rely on focused laser beams to transmit information to receivers. These first-gen devices require a direct line of sight to function, and they have a range of only 18 feet, but they’ve already been used in military applications.
Other companies are working on new transmission protocols as well. In January, Fujitsu debuted an unnamed protocol that combines the error-checking benefits of TCP with the efficiency of user datagram protocol (UDP), resulting in speeds 30 times faster, with one-sixth of the current latency rates. And innovation doesn’t stop there.
IBM recently developed wireless sensor nodes that can transmit up to 9 miles in rural areas, which is a substantial step up from the current maximum of 1.2 miles. Meanwhile, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) has set its sights on 400 gigabit Ethernet, with hopes of eventually reaching 1-terabit transmission rates.
Although DTN and the Deep Space Internet won't be earthbound in the near future, both have nonetheless inspired efforts to close the gap between space-based Internet technologies and traditional TCP/IP connections. NASA and its rocketmen have created a solid foundation; companies need only innovate.