The Future Is Now for NASA

By Barbara Forster, Computer World |  Networking

"With both on an Internet protocol, people can stay where they are, hook up to the Internet from a workstation and begin talking," says Rash.

An upcoming project at the University of California, Berkeley, is using this approach.

"We don't fly satellites to build communication infrastructure; we fly satellites to do science," explains Keith Hogie, a CSC senior consulting engineer. "If we spend less on infrastructure, we can do more science."

Because ground systems or end users don't need special communication hardware, a wide range of off-the-shelf hardwaare and software is available. Better yet, somebody else picks up the costs for development, debugging and ongoing maintenance.

"Thirty years ago, [space] communication was special," says Hogie. "Today, NASA doesn't need to invent new things. They can reap the benefit of the money they put into Internet connectivity."

Web Call to Mars

Although the OMNI project was initially geared toward establishing an IP network among LAN-based satellites and balloons, the technique is ideal for more distant missions, including those planned to Mars.

"Future NASA missions will require more networked assets, and the cheapest and quickest way to do this is with standard protocols," explains Rash.

The original test satellite was a minivan filled with the same equipment now on the UoSAT-12 satellite: computers, a power supply, a transmitter, an antenna, movable cameras and a standard Internet router. To gather data, the OMNI team drove the "spacecraft" around Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., while people at NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland were at a Web site controlling the video camera onboard the van. NASA's Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System sent data to a ground station at White Sands, Ariz.

For a real mission test, the OMNI team went to the Black Sea for the last solar eclipse of the century. In August of last year, the prototype satellite equipment sent live weather data and images via the Web.

Eclipse data went to Goddard and was distributed to mirror systems at centers in California and Florida. The sites also distributed Java applets that connected to the mirrored systems to receive real-time data streams. The applets did the final processing, reformatted the data and displayed it to users.

Standard data-delivery protocols are only part of the package. The team has already demonstrated spacecraft clock synchronization, and in June, it successfully tested standard File Transfer Protocol. Simple Mail Transfer Protocol e-mail tests are next.

"After all," says Hogie, "the spacecraft may want to send a message."

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