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[Inter Planetary Project]

   Lindsay Pereira

Just when you think you've got cyberspace almost figured out, some wise guys come up with a proposal to make it a lot more complicated. Take, for example, the people behind InterPlanetary Internet.

Comprising researchers from JPL, MITRE Corporation, SPARTA, Global Science and Technology, and consultants from USC/ISI, UCLA and CalTech, the IPN study aims to investigate how current Internet protocols may be extended in order to explore deep space.

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But, to begin at the beginning, consider this. It has taken approximately thirty years for the Internet to become what it is today: a revolutionary mode of telecommunication. During this period of time, while some of us have been busy exploring the present, a small group has been more avant garde, looking at possibilities of taking this successful network beyond Earth's limited boundaries.

From that humble concept, things started shifting into high gear early in the nineties, initiating the development of communication protocols for the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory's (JPL) Mars missions. The goal, now, is to get the same kind of services in space that we do on earth, which also means you can start expecting domains like .moon and .mars soon enough.

Back to IPN and its objective, which is a little more complicated. What it wants to do is 'define the architecture and protocols necessary to permit interoperation of the Internet resident on Earth with other remotely located Internets resident on other planets or spacecraft in transit'.

On the one hand, then, is our good old earthly Internet, which is a 'network of connected networks'. On the other, INP is being touted as a 'network of disconnected Internets' that will call for the development of newer techniques. The site's FAQ page highlights ways in which IPN research relates to emerging terrestrial Internet protocols.

The next question to ask is, how long is this going to take? An Interplanetary system will, first of all, require the setting up of high-capacity links between network traffic hubs that will, in all probability, be millions of miles apart. This automatically makes optical fibre redundant, as data transmission between planets will have to be wireless. Then again, wireless connections will involve other problems like interruptions during planetary rotation or orbital motion.

For the moment, NASA is working on designs for a Mars network of multiple orbiting relay satellites to be launched over a period of years, starting 2005. What it hopes to accomplish at the end of the exercise is connectivity between Earth and Mars!

What next? A WAP-enabled Martian-Earthling dating service? It could happen. Those who simply can't imagine a communication network between spacecraft, satellites, and planets had better start getting used to the idea. The implications of this system are tremendous, if one can go by what Chad Edwards, Manager, Mars Network Office, has to say.

Those deeply interested in the topic can find a lot more information at sites like Vint Cerf, Space Communications Protocol Standards pages, and the Consultative Committee for Space Data Systems.

For the rest, don't worry about your current batch of email buddies not being interesting enough. If alien life forms do exist, they could soon be sending you a private message.

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