Vint Cerf in Space!


Okay, we don’t mean physically in space. But Father of the Internet Vint Cerf (pictured above) wants to replace the current point-to-point communications infrastructure between spacecraft and earth with an internet-style networking protocol.

Technology Review has more:

Cerf, who is Google’s vice president and chief Internet evangelist, is working with a team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), where he is also a visiting scientist, and at the MITRE Corporation, based in Washington, DC, to design and implement a revolutionary new scheme for space communication. The project, dubbed the Interplanetary Internet, will be tested aboard the International Space Station (ISS) in 2009, and Cerf hopes that by 2010, new space missions will be designed to use the protocols.

The article features an interview with Cerf:

TR:What are the challenges of building such a network in space? 

VC:We started by working on a set of protocols that could deal with two very important properties of space communication. The first is delay. The distances between the planets are very large. For example, when Earth and Mars are closest together, it still takes 3.5 minutes for a radio signal moving at the speed of light to propagate. If I were on Mars and you were on Earth, it would take seven minutes at best before you heard a response. When Earth and Mars are farthest apart, the round trip takes 40 minutes! The reason we can talk back and forth on Earth so easily is that propagation times are very short by comparison.

The other problem is that the planets and their satellites are in motion, and most are rotating. The rotation of the planets means that if you are talking to something that is on the surface of the planet, it may rotate out of the line of sight so you cannot talk to it anymore, until the device on the surface rotates into view again. The same could be said for some orbiting satellites. You have to develop protocols that will deal with the fact that you cannot always communicate with the other party: the communication is both delayed and potentially disrupted. So that is what we designed: a delay- and disruption-tolerant networking system [DTN]. It will allow us to maintain communications more effectively, getting much more data because we don’t have to be in direct line of sight with the ultimate recipient in order to transfer data. The new protocols will be proposed to serve as a potential international standard for space networking.

TR: Is this going to require putting new infrastructure in space?

VC: The answer is yes and no. For example, the Deep Impact spacecraft [now called EPOXI] is already in orbit around the sun. It was used to launch a probe into a comet to examine its interior. EPOXI is being temporarily repurposed to test the new DTN protocols. The spacecraft has processing, memory, radio equipment, and solar panels for power so we don’t have to put new hardware up. We just have to upload new software. We are lucky to not have to field any new equipment yet, but the DTN protocols eventually have to show up in a fairly significant number of devices in the system to create the kind of network that can serve space-communication needs. Some specialized spacecraft could become store-and-forward routers. Each time a new mission is launched, using the standard bundle protocol, previous mission assets that are still in operation could be used to support the communication requirements of the new mission. In this way, we hope to accrete a kind of interplanetary backbone network.

Cerf is supporting Barack Obama for president because of the latter’s positions on net neutrality, according to CNET. But maybe he’s just gunning for the position of CTO of the United States?