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Spaced-Out Internet

Interplanetary internet-the concept sounds like something out of a science fiction movie.

Or less far-fetched if you have no trouble conjuring up images of astronauts on manned missions to Mars, chatting with ground scientists on instant messenger and updating their facebook accounts.

These scenarios could happen sooner than you think. Interplanetary internet is now being tested in space, using the Bundle Protocol developed by the Delay-Tolerant Networking Research Group.

Bundle works by packaging data into blocks of information that are then stored and routed forward between nodes via transport technology. The process reminds me of colored beads sliding along the wire of an abacus, where each bead is a bundle of information being transported in a stop-and-go manner.

This is the first time the Bundle Protocol worked successfully in space, using the UK-DMC satellite built by Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. The satellite transfered a bundle of remote-sensing image data to NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio.

Deep space is no friend to smooth, reliable internet communication. There are a number of obstacles once spacecraft and probes travel beyond the Earth's orbit. Meteors obstruct connections, powerful antennas are often to heavy to send into space, and communication networks cannot withstand the extreme environment. NASA aims to bring Bundle Protocol and Delay-Tolerant Networking technology to mainstream space exploration by 2010.

The work will be presented on September 30th at the 59th International Astronautical Congress 2008 in Glasgow, Scotland.

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