NET NEWS: Interplanetary Internet

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Science  14 Aug 1998:
Vol. 281, Issue 5379, pp. 879
DOI: 10.1126/science.281.5379.879c

Is cyberspace ready for outer space? Absolutely, according to MCI senior vice president and Internet guru Vinton Cerf, who caused a stir at an Internet Society meeting in Geneva last month when he broached the topic. “We think we will see planetary Internet networks that look very much like the ones we use today,” said Cerf, who in the 1970s helped make the rules for how data traverse the Net.

Such future-shock talk is being taken quite seriously at NASA, says Adrian Hooke of the agency's Jet Propulsion Lab in California, where Cerf recently became a distinguished visiting scientist. For several years, Hooke says, NASAhas been working to make Internet transmissions work when sent via satellites near Earth. Now NASA's planetary scientists are hoping to extend this reach deeper into space: They'd like to be able to transfer data from a rover on Mars using Internet-compatible protocols. The data might be shipped via gateways in orbit around the planets, in the same way that gateways direct Internet traffic on Earth. That could save mission costs, smooth the transfer of data to scientists, and perhaps even allow students to telecontrol a rover on a distant planet, Hooke says.

The main technical hurdle to a space Internet, Hooke says, is the huge delays when sending radio signals—it can take up to 50 minutes round trip to Mars. Such delays would bog down even the slowest connections on today's Internet, on which Web text and images are sent as bits and pieces via back-and-forth “handshakes” between computers. A space-friendly Internet protocol might need to “bundle” a Web page and send it all at once, Hooke says.

Don't expect a stampede just yet for Internet addresses ending in .mars and .moon. That will come later. “In 20, 50, or 100 years, it's quite conceivable that we'll have colonies of people on Mars or the moon,” Hooke says. And they'll undoubtedly be checking their e-mail from loved ones back home.

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