NASA DTN Protocol: Interplanetary Internet, How It Works, What LEGOS Have to To With It



NASA is calling it the interplanetary Internet, and announcements have been hitting in recent weeks regarding the sending of the first email, voicemail and, of late, news of an experiment that involved remote controlling of a LEGO space robot with it.

But what’s truly cool is the technology enabling it — it’s a protocol called Delay-Tolerant Networking, better known as DTN.

At its heart is Vint Cerf’s Bundle Protocol (BP), a version of the IP protocol he helped develop to pioneer the Internet decades ago.

In testing for several years, DTN got a major boost recently, says  Badri Younes, a NASA administrator in Washington. Astronaut Sunita Williams — she commanded the International Space Station’s current Expedition 33 mission — used NASA’s experimental Disruption Tolerant Networking (DTN) protocol to drive a small LEGO robot at the European Space Operations Center in Germany late last month.

That was big news for the DTN and BP protocols, developed jointly by Internet pioneer +Vint Cerf and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

In a nutshell — we’ll get down and dirty with the tech lower in the piece — DTN allows a standard method of communication over long distances and through time delays, agency officials said.

Its centering tech is similar to the IP protocol that is the building block of the Internet we use on Earth. The new one is called the Bundle Protocol (BP).

The big difference between BP and IP is that, while IP assumes a more or less smooth pathway for packets going from start to end point, BP allows for disconnections, glitches and other problems you see commonly in deep space, Younes said.

Basically, a BP network — the one that will the Interplanetary Internet possible — moves data packets in bursts from node to node, so that it can check when the next node is available or up.

“The demonstration (of the DTN controlled robot) 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,” Younes said.

“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,” Younes added.

Credit: European Space Agency

The first thing to understand is that the DTN testbed with BP driving it is in active testing now, NASA says.

Its first successful test was in 2008, when NASA announced that early DTN software for the first time enabled the transmission of more than a dozen of space images to and from a NASA science spacecraft located about 20 million miles (32M KM) from Earth. In a statement then, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Google’s +Vint Cerf said it kicked off the Interplanetary Internet. But what is DTN?

“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,” Younes added.

“The Disruption Tolerant Networking (DTN) program establishes a long-term, readily accessible communications test-bed onboard the International Space Station (ISS). Two Commercial Generic Bioprocessing Apparatus (CGBA), CGBA-5 and CGBA-4, will serve as communications test computers that transmit messages between ISS and ground Mission Control Centers. All data will be monitored and controlled at the BioServe remote Payload Operations Control Center (POCC) located on the Engineering Center premises at the University of Colorado – Boulder,” reps said today.

Credit: NASA

According to NASA’s Delay-Tolerant Networking Research Group (DTNRG), “the DTN protocol is under active development.”

An experiment using DTN to control the LEGO robot is in the news today, but NASA says there are real world, military and consumer applications that affect Internet users worldwide.

“In addition to network security, research goals for the DTN activity will focus on testing and evolving important network services including naming and addressing, time synchronization, routing, network management and class of service,” NASA reps add, saying that “the DTN experiments on the International Space Station (ISS) consist of software which is to be placed on both Commercial Generic Bioprocessing Apparatus (CGBA), CGBA-4 and CGBA-5, and then tested from a ground operations center.

What’s going on? Researchers explain “the DTN activity will focus on testing and evolving important network services including naming and addressing, time synchronization, routing, network management and class of service. The DTN experiments on ISS consist of software (that) is to be placed on both Commercial Generic Bioprocessing Apparatus, CGBA-4 and CGBA-5, and then tested from a ground operations center. This software is not in any critical path of the CGBA operations and may be turned off at anytime. This software does not preclude the use of the CGBA units for other purposes or research support.

DTN, say NASA reps, is “a networked architecture required to successfully complete these missions. The experiments that will be performed are designed to test the DTN protocol suite in an actual space environment, and to determine how well the protocols perform and what improvements may need to be made. The impact of the results of the research will help to advance the technical maturity of the DTN communications technology so that it is available for NASA use in both human and robotic Exploration missions.

The Delay-Tolerant Networking Research Group (DTNRG) is a research group chartered as part of the Internet Research Task Force (IRTF). Members of DTNRG are concerned with how to address the architectural and protocol design principles arising from the need to provide interoperable communications with and among extreme and performance-challenged environments where continuous end-to-end connectivity cannot be assumed. Said another way, we are concerned with interconnecting highly heterogeneous networks together even if end-to-end connectivity may never be available. Examples of such environments include spacecraft, military/tactical, some forms of disaster response, underwater, and some forms of ad-hoc sensor/actuator networks. It may also include Internet connectivity in places where performance may suffer such as developing parts of the world.

DTNRG members research aspects of delay-tolerant networking in a number of ways including academic publications, technical specifications, several active mailing lists, and code (reference implementation) development. DTNRG holds semi-regular teleconferences for software developers and occasional face-to-face public meetings. The public meetings usually occur in conjunction with an IETF meeting. The current co-chairs for DTNRG are Kevin Fall (Qualcomm), Stephen Farrell (Trinity College, Dublin) and Jörg Ott (Aalto University, Helsinki). Back in 2006 Stephen wrote a book on DTN. Several of the members of DTNRG participated in the (highly-related) DARPA Disruption Tolerant Networking program.

DTN research is necessary in space especially, NASA says, for the maturation of protocols to enable Internet-like communications with space vehicles, remote planetary habitats, rover vehicles and support infrastructure on a planetary surface. “It is being tested for the first time on ISS Onboard (local) ISS , ISS-to-ground, and NASA ground communications networks will become DTN-enabled,” NASA says. “That is the key stepping stone to enabling the Interplanetary Internet.

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  • Otto Rankenheimer

    deep tech reporting — loving anewdomain these days! great job gina and team

  • Tom Ewing

    This protocol could be useful in the case of a massive solar flare affecting communications on Earth, no?

    • Gina

      A good question for my interview with Cerf later!

    • Jack in TN

      It could, but then we could just consider it similar to any ‘store and forward’ protocol we might currently use. But it could be implemented a ‘lower layers’ rather than buried within applications.

  • jordanjay29

    I don’t see why we couldn’t used this here at home, too. Great for times when networks get bogged down, like when on mobile data in New York City, or where network access is sketchy and unreliable.

  • http://profiles.google.com/sinclairhacker Örjan Larsson

    Were was an project for DTN both in Northern Sweden, Lappland, and was it Slovenian too?

  • Anne_Ominous

    “Badri Younes, a NASA administrator in Washington. …”

    REALLY? What part of Washington? Was it Seattle? Spokane? Maybe Yakima or Vancouver?

    As a former Washington resident, with family there, let me express my disgust with your Eastern journalistic laziness.

    The place to which you were referring is the District of Columbia, or D.C.

    Washington is a nickname but that is ALL it is. The MILLIONS of people in the real Washington take offense at being associated with the THOUSANDS of people in D.C., which is about 2,700 miles away from the main population of WASHINGTON, and in addition has a culture and lifestyle that many in the West find to be rather disgusting. (Yes, I’ve been there.)

    Keep your DC to yourself. Don’t call it Washington, unless you append a “DC” to it, and even then you are being inaccurate. Other journalists have been taught this lesson. Learn it.

    • Audin

      Uh. I’m in Washington state right now. Lived here all my life. I take no offence when someone uses the word ‘Washington’ to refer to DC. Calm down dude.

      • gs

        Indeed. My bad habit from working at ABC News is we always called DC “Washingon” in political stories. My bad. But let’s be cool and march forward, guys. And hey, great commentary and catches on this. I think we have one of the smartest communities online today! thank you

      • Anne_Ominous

        The fact that you are not bothered does not mean that lots of other people are not. I happen to know quite a few who are.

        Opinions and personalities vary. Some people find the eating of beef to be offensive. Lots of people don’t. But that doesn’t mean they may not be legitimately offended if someone they know offers them some.

    • http://twitter.com/stiggle David Priestley

      Millions in the real Washington? Its a small town in the north of England with a population of about 50k.

      The original Washington is in Tyne & Wear, England (which is where George’s family got its name from) and is over 1000 years old. :-)

    • Adam

      And I’m annoyed whenever somebody talks about “Ontario” the tiny little city in California without specifying that they’re not talking about the largest province of Canada that has fifty times the population. Get over it.

      • Anne_Ominous

        Oh, B.S.

        One Ontario is in the United States, the other is in Canada, and they are RELATIVELY seldom confused. The District of Columbia and Washington State are both in the United States, and “Washington” is FREQUENTLY used in ways that can cause confusion.

        I can appreciate the fact that you don’t much care. But lots of people do.

    • Argento

      I can’t help thinking about some Pluto inhabitant ranting on the Interplanetary Internet about those disgusting creatures at the 3rd rock from the big bonfire that first named their home like a cartoon dog and then excluded it from the solar system planet list…

    • Alex

      Interplanetary communication may be easier than interpersonal. Disruption Tolerant Networking indeed. Let’s treat the comment about “distasteful” culture and lifestyle as amusing rather than offensive. The signal is coming from very far and may have been distorted in the transmission. DTN protocol should be used next time.

  • http://twitter.com/m13253 ???

    Can it be the interplanetary Internet in the future? If so, can I just open a web page from the space station and open it immediately? Or can I play online games or video chat through DTN?

  • Picky Network Engineer

    ” Its centering tech is similar to the IP protocol (that is the TCP/IP protocol) that is the building block of the Internet we use on Earth. ”

    IP is not TCP/IP. Much more protocols than TCP (which is a layer 4 protocol) run on top of IP (which is a layer 3 protocol), and TCP doesn’t require IP as it’s transport protocol.

    Now of course TCP/IP is one of the most used protocol combinaison in use, but simplifying “IP” to be “TCP/IP” is just incorrect :)

  • Internet Engineer

    “The big difference between BP and IP is that, while IP assumes a more or
    less smooth pathway for packets going from start to end point, BP
    allows for disconnections, glitches and other problems you see commonly
    in deep space, Younes said.” IP makes no such assumption and is by design “best effort”. If there are ever assumptions of a smooth pathway, they are often in the application.

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