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I've never much considered the potential latency of packets routed between Earth and Mars. Me, I'm more worried about my cable-modem going down or dropped 3G calls. Fortunately, Vint Cerf, co-developer of TCP/IP and currently a Google evangelist, is among a group of more forward-thinking folks envisioning an interplanetary backbone where network traffic hubs could be hundreds of millions of miles apart.
I've never much considered the potential latency of packets routed between Earth and Mars. Me, I'm more worried about my cable-modem going down or dropped 3G calls. Fortunately, Vint Cerf, co-developer of TCP/IP and currently a Google evangelist, is among a group of more forward-thinking folks envisioning an interplanetary backbone where network traffic hubs could be hundreds of millions of miles apart.When I first heard about the Interplanetary Internet effort, I thought maybe it was a joke. But then I read Rob Pegoraro's Fast Forward column, about a speech Cerf gave recently in Washington, D.C. Here's the relevant portion:
"The fun part of the talk came when he moved to discussing his plans for "InterPlaNetary Internet." This seemingly science-fiction effort aims to solve a genuine problem: the point-to-point communication that has worked acceptably well for individual missions to other planets doesn't scale as we send more hardware Out There and expect more data back. A networked communications system would make more sense, but the Internet's protocols need to be adapted. Specifically, they can't handle the long latency of communication from here to Mars or beyond -- "The speed of light is too slow," he noted -- and they do need to have every packet of data authenticated, given the costs of a compromised system stuck 200 million miles away."
I particularly enjoyed Cerf's dry remark about the speed of light. He was speaking to an audience of government contractors, so presumably they "got it," though I think these days even casual Star Trek viewers understand that 3 x 108 meters/sec is a hard upper limit.
The InterPlaNetary Internet, and that funky spelling, actually comes from an ongoing project and special interest group, of which Cerf is a member at large. (Go here to see the IPN SIG page.) According to the IPN SIG page:
"Technical research into how the Earth's Internet may be extended into interplanetary space has been underway for several years as part of an international communications standardization body known as the Consultative Committee for Space Data Systems."
But it's not just pie in the sky research. NASA is involved. According to the IPN SIG's Faq:
"An interplanetary backbone would be a set of high-capacity, high-availability links between network traffic hubs. The difference is that these network traffic hubs would in many cases be hundreds of millions of miles apart. . . NASA is already studying designs for a "Mars network" of multiple orbiting relay satellites. . . By deploying it, though, NASA would for the first time establish a deep space infrastructure whose sole purpose is to support the communication needs of multiple missions into the indefinite future."
The funding pressure to which NASA is subject has probably put a crimp in this. However, one loosely related effort reached a milestone the other day, when a Cisco "space" router passed a Defense Dept. satellite orbit test. Here, the concern revolves around uptime and reliability, rather than 100-million-mile links.
Nevertheless, it seems like a good bet that the Internet will eventually break its earthbound shackles. Perhaps our descendents will one day carry PCs loaded with Windows 3117 to the far corners of the solar system.