Remember when a wireless network connecting people all over the world was nothing more than science fiction? Or when the most cutting-edge Internet advancement meant not tying up a phone line while you surfed the web? Well, space agencies are taking wireless technology up a notch, and their latest Internet experiment is out of this world – literally.
NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) recently tested a new communications protocol that could lead to an interplanetary Internet. At the International Space Station, commander Sunita Williams entered commands on her NASA-developed laptop. Hundreds of miles below, at an ESA facility in Darmstadt, Germany, a LEGO MINDSTORMS robot responded. Williams steered the robot from the space station, successfully controlling a vehicle on Earth’s surface as she orbited above the planet.
The LEGO MINDSTORMS robot, running NXT software powered by LabVIEW, was used to simulate a robotic rover on another planet. The experiment proved an astronaut can safely orbit above the planet and control a vehicle on the ground below.
So how exactly does this interplanetary communication work? NASA’s Disruption Tolerant Networking (DTN) protocol allows Internet-like communications to work despite long distances, time delays, and disconnections and errors by moving data through a network “hop-by-hop.” Williams used this experimental interplanetary Internet to drive the robot, and DTN may one day lead to a more connected solar system.