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NASA Is Reaching for the Moon--Via E-Mail

Innovation: Engineers are developing a computer network for the era of interplanetary travel.


Officially, the "inter" in Internet stands for international, but the time has come to start thinking interplanetary.

That's the vision of NASA engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, who are already preparing for the day when robots--and perhaps humans--are spread throughout the solar system communicating with one another through an interplanetary computer network.

Earth, the moon and several planets could eventually connect to one another via "long-distance" relays, and each would have its own "local" Internet--much like today's telephone network.

And if this were to come to pass, e-mail and Web site addresses that end in ".moon" or ".mars" could one day become commonplace.

The Interplanetary Network, or IPN, will combine elements of today's Internet with another communications network that countries around the world use to communicate with their satellites and other spaceships, said Adrian Hooke, the NASA engineer behind the vision. The project is expected to be formally announced early next month.

In the near term, NASA could use the IPN to communicate with the probes it sends into space. The first users of the hybrid communications network could be future generations of Mars rovers like Sojourner. They will visit the Red Planet in less five years, Hooke said.

Hooke, who was instrumental in developing the space communications network two decades ago, will lead the IPN project. He will be joined by Vinton G. Cerf, who is known as the "father of the Internet" for his role in developing key protocols for the global computer network. Cerf, now a senior vice president at MCI Communications Corp., has been appointed to the special position of JPL Distinguished Visiting Scientist to work on the project.

Engineers from USC's Information Sciences Institute, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and UUNet Technologies Inc. will also participate.

The impetus for the Interplanetary Network came five years ago when an international organization began to reexamine the network protocols used by spacecraft. In order to improve tasks like transferring files and sending and receiving messages, the standards group--the Consultative Committee for Space Data Systems, or CCSDS--decided to adopt some protocols from the Internet.

But they had to be modified to suit the conditions of space communications--low-power wireless transmissions over very large distances that produce higher error rates than regular Internet transmissions, said Hooke, who is manager of the NASA Space Mission Operations Standardization Program.

Last fall, a former member of the JPL-led team who went to work for MCI learned of Cerf's interest in preparing the Internet for the day--perhaps 20 or 50 years hence--when people inhabit the moon, Mars and other planets. After all, it took about 20 years to build the original Internet, so it might not be too soon to get started, Cerf said.

That gave Hooke the idea that perhaps "the space junkies and the Internet junkies" could work together to build a single network protocol that would serve both people and spacecraft throughout the solar system, he said.

Such a network would have obvious benefits for JPL's ongoing missions to Mars. For instance, future Mars rovers could essentially become tiny Internet servers and be able to communicate with perhaps millions of computers back on Earth.

But the uniform design could also aid the terrestrial Internet, especially as it becomes more of a mixed-media network. Internet connections via wireless phones and satellites could be more robust if they employed some aspects of the space network protocol, Hooke said.

Cerf hinted at the Interplanetary Network last week during a keynote speech at the Internet Society's annual conference in Geneva.

"It's now time to start thinking beyond the Earth and get working on the design of an interplanetary Internet," he said.

So far, Hooke has financed the IPN efforts out of his own NASA budget, but the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency--the federal agency that footed the bill for building today's Internet--is considering whether to pick up the tab this fall. Hooke said he hopes his group will be ready to begin building and testing protocols by next spring.

Don Heath, president of the Internet Society in Reston, Va., said he supports the effort to extend the Internet into space, which could "result in new thinking for the more conventional technology required here on Earth."

Times staff writer Karen Kaplan can be reached at

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