The interplanetary internet (based on IPN, also called InterPlaNet) is a conceived computer network in space, consisting of a set of network nodes that can communicate with each other. Communication would be greatly delayed by the great interplanetary distances, so the IPN needs a new set of protocols and technology that are tolerant to large delays and errors. Although the Internet as it is known today tends to be a busy network of networks with high traffic, negligible delay and errors, and a wired backbone, the interplanetary Internet is a store and forward network of internets that is often disconnected, has a wireless backbone fraught with error-prone links and delays ranging from tens of minutes to even hours, even when there is a connection.
Space communication technology has steadily evolved from expensive, one-of-a-kind point-to-point architectures, to the re-use of technology on successive missions, to the development of standard protocols agreed upon by space agencies of many countries. This last phase has gone on since 1982 through the efforts of the Consultative Committee for Space Data Systems (CCSDS), a body composed of the major space agencies of the world. It has 11 member agencies, 22 observer agencies, and over 100 industrial associates.
The evolution of space data system standards has gone on in parallel with the evolution of the Internet, with conceptual cross-pollination where fruitful, but largely as a separate evolution. Since the late 1990s, familiar Internet protocols and CCSDS space link protocols have integrated and converged in several ways, for example, the successful FTP file transfer to Earth-orbiting STRV 1B on January 2, 1996, which ran FTP over the CCSDS IPv4-like Space Communications Protocol Specifications (SCPS) protocols. Internet Protocol use without CCSDS has taken place on spacecraft, e.g., demonstrations on the UoSAT-12 satellite, and operationally on the Disaster Monitoring Constellation. Having reached the era where networking and IP on board spacecraft have been shown to be feasible and reliable, a forward-looking study of the bigger picture was the next phase.
ICANN meeting, Los Angeles, USA, 2007. The marquee pays a humorous homage to the Ed Wood film Plan 9 from Outer Space, while namedropping Internet pioneer Vint Cerf.
The Interplanetary Internet study at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) was started by a team of scientists at JPL led by Vinton Cerf and Adrian Hooke. Cerf is one of the pioneers of the Internet on Earth, and currently holds the position of distinguished visiting scientist at JPL. Hooke is one of the directors of the CCSDS.
While IP-like SCPS protocols are feasible for short hops, such as ground station to orbiter, rover-to-lander, lander-to-orbiter, probe-to-flyby, and so on, delay-tolerant networking is needed to get information from one region of the solar system to another. It becomes apparent that the concept of a "region" is a natural architectural factoring of the InterPlanetary Internet.
A "region" is an area where the characteristics of communication are the same. Region characteristics include communications, security, the maintenance of resources, perhaps ownership, and other factors. The Interplanetary Internet is a "network of regional internets."
What is needed then, is a standard way to achieve end-to-end communication through multiple regions in a disconnected, variable-delay environment using a generalized suite of protocols. Examples of regions might include the terrestrial Internet as a region, a region on the surface of the moon or Mars, or a ground-to-orbit region.
The recognition of this requirement led to the concept of a "bundle" as a high-level way to address the generalized Store-and-Forward problem. Bundles are an area of new protocol development in the upper layers of the OSI model, above the Transport Layer with the goal of addressing the issue of bundling store-and-forward information so that it can reliably traverse radically dissimilar environments constituting a "network of regional internets."
Delay-tolerant networking (DTN) was designed to enable standardized communications over long distances and through time delays. At its core is something called the Bundle Protocol (BP), which is similar to the Internet Protocol, or IP, that serves as the heart of the Internet here on Earth. The big difference between the regular Internet Protocol (IP) and the Bundle Protocol is that IP assumes a seamless end-to-end data path, while BP is built to account for errors and disconnections — glitches that commonly plague deep-space communications.
Bundle Service Layering, implemented as the Bundling protocol suite for delay-tolerant networking, will provide general purpose delay-tolerant protocol services in support of a range of applications: custody transfer, segmentation and reassembly, end-to-end reliability, end-to-end security, and end-to-end routing among them. The Bundle Protocol was first tested in space on the UK-DMC satellite in 2008.
The Deep Impact mission
An example of one of these end-to-end applications flown on a space mission is the CCSDS File Delivery Protocol (CFDP), used on the comet mission, Deep Impact. CFDP is an international standard for automatic, reliable file transfer in both directions. (CFDP should not be confused with Coherent File Distribution Protocol, which unfortunately has the same acronym and is an IETF-documented experimental protocol for rapidly deploying files to multiple targets in a highly networked environment.)
In addition to reliably copying a file from one entity (such as a spacecraft or ground station) to another entity, CFDP has the capability to reliably transmit arbitrary small messages defined by the user, in the metadata accompanying the file, and to reliably transmit commands relating to file system management that are to be executed automatically on the remote end-point entity (such as a spacecraft) upon successful reception of a file.
The dormant InterPlanetary Internet Special Interest Group of the Internet Society has worked on defining protocols and standards that would make the IPN possible. The Delay-Tolerant Networking Research Group (DTNRG) is the primary group researching Delay-tolerant networking (DTN). Additional research efforts focus on various uses of the new technology.
The canceled Mars Telecommunications Orbiter had been planned to establish an Interplanetary Internet link between Earth and Mars, in order to support other Mars missions. It would have used optical communications using laser beams for their lower ping rates than radiowaves. "Lasercom sends information using beams of light and optical elements, such as telescopes and optical amplifiers, rather than RF signals, amplifiers, and antennas"
NASA JPL continued to test the DTN protocol with their Deep Impact Networking (DINET) experiment on board the Deep Impact/EPOXI spacecraft in October, 2008.
In May 2009, DTN was deployed to a payload on board the ISS. NASA and BioServe Space Technologies, a research group at the University of Colorado, have been continuously testing DTN on two Commercial Generic Bioprocessing Apparatus (CGBA) payloads. CGBA-4 and CGBA-5 serve as computational and communications platforms which are remotely controlled from BioServe's Payload Operations Control Center (POCC) in Boulder, CO. In October 2012 ISS Station commander Sunita Williams remotely operated Mocup (Meteron Operations and Communications Prototype), a "cat-sized" Lego Mindstorms robot fitted with a BeagleBoard computer and webcam, located in the European Space Operations Centre in Germany in an experiment using DTN. These initial experiments provide insight into future missions where DTN will enable the extension of networks into deep space to explore other planets and solar system points of interest. Seen as necessary for space exploration, DTN enables timeliness of data return from operating assets which results in reduced risk and cost, increased crew safety, and improved operational awareness and science return for NASA and additional space agencies.
DTN has several major arenas of application, in addition to the Interplanetary Internet, which include sensor networks, military and tactical communications, disaster recovery, hostile environments, mobile devices and remote outposts. As an example of a remote outpost, imagine an isolated Arctic village, or a faraway island, with electricity, one or more computers, but no communication connectivity. With the addition of a simple wireless hotspot in the village, plus DTN-enabled devices on, say, dog sleds or fishing boats, a resident would be able to check their e-mail or click on a Wikipedia article, and have their requests forwarded to the nearest networked location on the sled's or boat's next visit, and get the replies on its return.
Earth orbit is sufficiently nearby that conventional protocols can be used. For example, the International Space Station is connected to the regular terrestrial Internet. However, the space station also serves as a useful platform to develop, experiment, and implement systems that make up the interplanetary internet. NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) have used an experimental version of interplanetary Internet to control an educational rover, placed at the European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany, from the International Space Station. The experiment used the DTN protocol to demonstrate technology that one day may enable Internet-like communications that can support habitats or infrastructure on another planet.