Blogging From Mars? Log On to the Interplanetary Internet

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Should humans set foot on Mars dirt in the next few decades, I doubt our ultra-connected future-Earthlings would want anything less than to watch the event via a high-speed, high-definition (3D?), surround-sound direct link to the Red Planet’s surface. We’ll want to see every grain of Mars dust in the air, hear every astronaut’s boot crunch in the regolith and experience the emotion felt by the small band of humans exploring an alien planet for the first time in history.

Who knows, our first Mars astronauts might even want to do a spot of micro-blogging — or whatever the mid-21st Century equivalent may be — as they document that historic moment, transmitting data over tens of millions of miles back home for the consumption of billions of viewers.

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But what if the infrastructure of today’s Deep Space Network (DSN) — only three radio antennae located in the U.S., Australia and Spain — has simply been upgraded, where mission communications are priority and bandwidth is too low to even consider streaming* video (let alone interplanetary status updates or app downloads)?

Well, there’s a guy from Google who might have an answer for our data-hungry space future.

“Father of the Internet”

Speaking at the Interlop 2011 conference on Tuesday, Vint Cerf, chief Internet evangelist for Google and the man known as one of the “fathers of the Internet,” set out his priorities for the world’s online future. But the discussion wasn’t restricted to Earth.

According to Information Week reporter Paul McDougall, Cerf chatted with reporters during a Q&A about the need for an “Interplanetary Internet,” and how the system might be envisaged. “We need a set of protocols that work on interplanetary distances, TCP/IP does not,” Cerf is quoted as saying after his keynote speech at the event being held at the Mandalay Bay Hotel in Las Vegas this week.

This isn’t a new development, however. Cerf has been working closely with NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) for the last few years, testing systems that may be used to expand an Internet-like system into interplanetary space, finding a standardized Internet protocol that every satellite, lander, rover and astronaut can hook up to (the blogging Mars astronaut scenario imagined above would come much later).

Creating a dependable means of transmitting data throughout the solar system would have obvious benefits for communicating with our armada of robotic missions, but should President Obama’s plan of sending humans to Mars in the mid-2030′s come to fruition, we’d also have a standardized infrastructure in place that could be utilized.

Interplanetary Protocol

In an interview on Monday, Cerf provided some detail as to how far along the line the Interplanetary Internet is:

“During 2011, our initiative is to ‘space qualify’ the interplanetary protocols in order to standardize them and make them available to all the space-faring countries. If they choose to adopt the protocols, then potentially every spacecraft launched from that time on is potentially interwoven from a communications point of view.”

Interestingly, Cerf also hinted that retired spacecraft needn’t go to waste; they could act as “nodes” of the expansive Interplanetary Internet.

“…when the spacecrafts have finished their primary missions, if they are still functionally operable — they have power, computer, communications — they can become nodes in an interplanetary backbone. So what can happen over time is that we can literally grow an interplanetary network that can support both manned and robotic exploration.”

For example, when communication is required between two planets and the sun is blocking the line of sight, these satellite relays would be very useful to transmit data around the obstacle.

Space Station, Online

In 2008, I reported about the Google/NASA plans for the International Space Station to begin tests on a limited internet protocol that would allow astronauts access to the (terrestrial) internet. In 2010, that became a reality. We are now accustomed to regular tweets and photographs from orbiting ISS astronauts excited to share their experience with the world.

For this orbital internet test bed, the space station’s high-speed Ku-band antenna is being utilized for the connection, so it’s not hard to imagine using similar antennae to connect other space vehicles.

At the conference, Cerf added that an Interplanetary Internet would most likely use radio transmissions at first, and then ultimately optical lasers that could deliver “hundreds of megabits per second” to conquer the vast distances involved. Now we’re talking.

Lost Email

Of course, with today’s Internet, we are often dealing with lossy data — connections can be lost, data packets corrupted. In a solar system fully of lengthy time lags, solar flares and planetary conjunctions, how could an Interplanetary Internet possibly transmit data that retains any of its integrity?

From my 2008 article:

Vint Cerf says the disruption of data transmission has to be confronted with a delay- and disruption-tolerant networking system, otherwise known as 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,” he said. DTN will be based on store-and-forward methods used by TCP/IP systems; if there is a disruption in signal, the transmitting station will hold data packets until the signal is re-established. However, DTN will be more robust, catering for long transmission lag-times (such as the many-hour light transmission times between Earth and the outer Solar System). “We have to cope with the fact that there is a really high potential for delay and disruption in the system,” he added.

It sounds like Cerf will have our Martian astronauts blogging, vlogging and Shazam-ing in no time.

* “Streaming video” doesn’t mean “live video,” as no matter how much work that will go into an interplanetary internet, no signal will travel faster than the speed of light.

Image: NASA

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