The European Space Agency (ESA) and Nasa have successfully used an experimental version of interplanetary Internet to control an educational rover from the International Space Station.
The experiment used Nasa's Disruption Tolerant Networking (DTN) protocol to remotely drive a LEGO robot at ESA's Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany.
In the European-led experiment, ISS commander Sunita Williams used a Nasa-developed laptop and DTN to simulate a scenario in which an astronaut in an orbiting vehicle controls a robotic rover on a planet's surface.
Called Mocup – a second-generation acronym for Meteron Operations and Communications Prototype – the rover is part of ESA’s Meteron (Multi-purpose End-To-End Robotic Operations Network) initiative for future missions to the Moon, Mars and other celestial bodies.
"The demonstration showed the feasibility of using a new communications infrastructure to send commands to a surface robot from an orbiting spacecraft and receive images and data back from the robot," said Badri Younes, deputy associate administrator for space communications and navigation at Nasa Headquarters in Washington.
"The experimental DTN we've tested from the space station may one day be used by humans on a spacecraft in orbit around Mars to operate robots on the surface, or from Earth using orbiting satellites as relay stations."
DTN, which is part of Nasa's Space Communication and Navigation (SCaN) programme, enables standardised communications similar to the Internet to function over long distances, and despite the time delays associated with vehicles in orbit or deep space.
The core of the DTN suite is the Bundle Protocol (BP), which is roughly equivalent to the Internet Protocol (IP) that serves as the core of the Internet on Earth. While IP assumes a continuous end-to-end data path exists between the user and a remote space system, DTN accounts for disconnections and errors.
In DTN, data move through the network "hop-by-hop". While waiting for the next link to become connected, bundles are temporarily stored and then forwarded to the next node when the link becomes available.