Internet breaches the final frontier

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Internet breaches the final frontier

Internet creator looks to the stars for his next project.

Vint Cerf, co-creator of the Internet and a Google vice president, says he’s designing new protocols for a strong space-communication network, modeled on the internet here on Earth.

Years ago, Cerf was the man who designed the networking protocols which launched the whole net phenomenom. But now the internet guru is reaching for the moon, positing it’s about time a proper working communication system was launched into space, ridding the space exploration industry of costly, non reusable point-to-point radio links, which inhibit interoperability and that have to be made specifically for every mission.

To this aim, Cerf has teamed up with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and the Washington DC based MITRE Corporation, a not-for-profit national technology resource on a project dubbed the Interplanetary Internet.

The project, to develop communication standards and technical specs which can support rich networking in space, will be tested on the International Space Station (ISS) next year. If that goes well, Cerf hopes space missions will be designed to use the protocols as early as 2010.

In an interview with MIT’s Technology Review, Cerf notes the primary difficulties in building such a network include distance-induced delays and the rotation of the planets, causing disruption in communication lines.

To deal with these issues, Cerf says the project is developing a delay- and disruption-tolerant networking system [DTN] which uses store-and-forward methods - routing data through hosts which store it until communications can be established - similar to TCP/IP in design.

"Using the DTN bundle protocol allows us to design more-complex mission configurations involving many devices on the surface of planets and in orbit around them," says Cerf, who adds he expects standard TCP/IP protocols would be used on the surface of planets and in spacecraft, while DTN protocols would be reserved for interplanetary distance communications.

The project is not without security concerns, however, and Cerf notes great pains were taken to build defenses into the basic design so that each bundle-aware node would be able to identify any other nodes it's communicating with.

"We will be using strong authentication methods, cryptographic communication methods, to ensure that the parties that are using the resources are authorised to do so," says Cerf, explaining how nodes could refuse to forward data from any nodes that it doesn’t recognise.

Cerf reckons that someday soon, the network could even link manned and robotic spacecraft becoming the basis for a galaxy-wide communications system.

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