The Internet is built on a network of servers that store and process information. These servers can be located anywhere on Earth — or in outer space. Enter the cosmic frontier of Interplanetary Internet, where groundbreaking technology defies space’s vastness. Explore seamless communication across celestial bodies, discovering the cutting-edge innovations shaping our interstellar future.
Space missions require dedicated networks to connect orbiters, rovers and any other skyward-launched device. But the software for these systems is crafted for each individual mission.
The demand for hosting services that extend beyond Earth is growing rapidly. This is mainly due to the increase in internet penetration and increased usage of cloud computing. In addition, the growing need for data storage and processing has also fueled this growth. Furthermore, the need for companies to have a strong online presence and support mobile applications has also contributed to the growth of the web hosting industry.
However, there are a few challenges that need to be overcome before we can achieve interplanetary connectivity. For one, the current Internet protocols don’t work well in space. As Vint Cerf, a leading pioneer of terrestrial Internet technologies, explains, “Space befuddles Earthbound protocols in ways most network experts rarely conceive.”
One group within NASA believes that the agency can use existing Internet technology to connect its satellites and probes. This approach would allow scientists to communicate with planetary instruments as they do now, via a computer, from a home or university lab. The problem is that the spacecraft that carries an instrument can’t be attached to a fixed Internet server, since they are constantly in motion.
To solve this issue, a team led by engineers at the Goddard Space Flight Center has developed software called CANDOS that allows a probe to act as its own Internet server, storing data locally on its own computers. In order to do this, the spacecraft must be able to confirm that it has received a data packet from another satellite before sending more. This is not as easy as it sounds, though, because of the speed limitations of light in space. A delay of even a fraction of a second could be fatal to any communication system that relies on traditional Internet protocols.
Other innovations include the use of lasers to send data between gateways in space, instead of relying on radio frequencies. This will enable high-resolution imagery and real-time command and control of space missions. The use of artificial intelligence is also helping to improve web hosting services, with companies able to automatically provision and configure servers and optimize resources. This can help reduce energy consumption, which is important in a world where global warming is becoming an increasing concern.
As the technology for Web servers and routers continues to improve, scientists are developing new communications networks that will take hosting services beyond Earth. These innovations could one day let us surf the Internet from space, from our own rovers on Mars or even from satellites bolted onto the sides of rockets as they blast off for Jupiter or Saturn.
For example, the ISS crew recently got a taste of an interplanetary Web by accessing a special site in Houston. It’s a much safer way to surf the Internet than having astronauts use their own laptop computers on the station. That’s because any malware that may be downloaded would only affect the computer in Houston and not theirs, too.
That experiment was the first step toward developing an interplanetary network of Web servers, a concept called the InterPlanetary Internet (IPN). Scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory are working with Vint Cerf, Google’s chief Internet evangelist and one of the fathers of the terrestrial Internet, to create delay-tolerant networks that can cope with the time lag inherent in deep-space communications.
These delays are created in part by the physics of light. For example, it takes over a second for a message to travel from the ISS to Earth. Adding the transit time of multiple relay satellites can double that amount. The standard protocols that govern Internet communication require a confirmation from the receiving machine that each data packet has been received, and these delays can overwhelm them.
To overcome these issues, the JPL team is designing software that will allow Internet servers in space to keep a copy of each transmitted packet until it receives confirmation from the next server along the chain. This is a fundamental change to the protocol that governs the Internet, and it will make it possible to use it in the space environment without worrying about losing any data along the way.
Another innovation is the design of gateways that will form a backbone for an interplanetary network. These gateways will be able to connect the Internet to the rovers and probes currently orbiting Mars, as well as to the planned Martian microsatellites that would form a full-time link to Earth. The gateways will also need to be powerful enough to power the network in deep space, where current photovoltaic-powered satellites start to become impractical due to the distance of the outer planets from Earth.
The Internet is a network of interconnected servers that serve information to users across the globe. Each server, or host, connected to the rest of the network through communication satellites. Consumer grade satellite internet service is provided by a variety of companies that offer high speed broadband satellite connections. These communication satellites placed in low Earth orbit and can offer data speeds up to 506 Mbit/s.
In addition to hosting web servers, many satellites designed for other applications such as navigation, communication, and remote sensing. Companies like SpaceX and OneWeb are working on satellite constellations that will provide internet access to users around the world.
When you click a link or open a webpage on your home computer, the request is sent to a server that immediately executes it. This is because the computers that make up the Internet are able to communicate with each other at the same speed as light. As the distance between computers gets much larger, this sort of immediacy will no longer be possible.
Scientists and engineers are working on the Interplanetary Internet (IPN), a means of linking together Earth with the ever-increasing number of space probes and human space stations we have sent out into the cosmos. Vinton Cerf, who often referred to as the “father of the Internet,” gave a talk recently at NCSA/ACCESS that summarized progress made so far on this project and looked ahead to future developments.
He discussed how the current TCP/IP protocols used on the Internet will work fine on individual planets, but a new protocol is needed to link those planets. A team led by JPL engineer Kevin Fall is working on the details of this protocol, which they call Delay Tolerant Networking (DTN).
DTN takes advantage of the fact that while it may take a fraction of a second for a radio signal to travel between two computers on Earth, it will only take about a millisecond to send the same request to a satellite that is 22,300 miles away and beams the information back down to Earth. From there, it can be forwarded to the computer you are requesting information from.
The Internet’s reach is expanding, even onboard commercial airplanes and the International Space Station. The same technologies that enable this are now enabling a new era of communication with outer space—and beyond, to the planets in our solar system.
Traditionally, astronauts and robotic spacecraft use point-to-point radio links and communications schemes that are custom-design for each mission. This limits interoperability and inhibits repurposing of equipment, a challenge that will only grow as missions become more complex.
To address this challenge, Vint Cerf and the JPL team have been working on a solution called Delay-Tolerant Networking (DTN). In DTN, the incoming data of each packet delayed by just a fraction of a light-year until a node with enough spare capacity can receive it. This eliminates the need for each device to maintain a global clock, which would require a substantial amount of power and be very inaccurate.
DTN already use to transfer data between the ISS and the Mars Curiosity rover, demonstrating that it can use for interplanetary communication. DTN expected to be the primary technology underlying a future Interplanetary Internet that will enable humans to connect to Earth from Mars, and eventually from other worlds in our solar system.
Another key technology to make this possible is the deployment of satellite constellations that can act as Internet gateways and interplanetary routers. These are currently under development and planned to include megaconstellations of thousands of satellites, such as those proposed by OneWeb and SpaceX. Such systems will provide a backbone for the Interplanetary Internet and enable high-speed connections between Earth and the other planets in our solar system.
But there are still challenges to a full-scale Interplanetary Internet, such as the fact that direct communication between planets interrupted for two weeks every other year when the Sun passes between them and blocks signals. The DTN protocol also must be impenetrable to hackers, which could potentially disrupt navigation or communication systems and cause major problems in manned space missions. The designers working on this issue, and they hope to look at existing protocols that have proven secure in the field of financial transactions as a model for an interplanetary Internet.