From the comfort of home, an engineer logs onto the Internet using a laptop computer and communicates with an orbiting spacecraft. Using industry standard Internet protocols, simple keystrokes send commands adjusting the spacecraft's attitude.
What seems like science fiction, is fast becoming a twenty-first century reality for engineers assigned to the Operating Missions as Nodes on the Internet (OMNI) project at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. The project recently completed the first step in extending Internet access to future spacecraft by using the UoSAT-12 satellite, deployed in 1999 by Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. of Surrey, England.
In a cooperative effort between NASA and Surrey, standard Internet software modules were uploaded to the spacecraft. On April 10, OMNI engineers successfully activated the software to obtain the spacecraft's responses to "pings" -confirmation that the spacecraft was operating normally as a node on the Internet. Pings are standard Internet messages that result in a response similar to the echo one hears using sonar equipment.
"These early tests are generating a lot of interest in the space community," said OMNI Project Manager Jim Rash at Goddard. "Several folks in the space business are excited by the mission simplifications and cost-cutting strategies afforded by the use of industry-standard Internet protocols."
Commercial communication service providers have implemented the Internet using communications satellites for more than two decades, but the satellites did not have their own Internet address and could not recognize Internet messages. The UoSAT-12 became the first orbiting spacecraft to use only standard Internet protocols and technologies for end-to-end communications. This approach will provide future mission concepts, such as collaborative observations from multiple spacecraft, with cost-effective operations.
"The key component of the OMNI activities is the insertion of a network protocol into NASA's space communication systems," said Keith Hogie, OMNI Technical Team Leader, Computer Sciences Corporation. "This allows NASA to leverage all recent developments in Internet technology to enable future mission visions such as collaborative science among multiple satellites."
Launched without onboard Internet protocol support, Surrey loaded the necessary Internet protocol support software, developed by VyTek LLC of Pittsburgh, Penn., to the on-orbit spacecraft. The company then installed a standard commercial Internet router - a hardware device that routes Internet messages from node to node - at their ground station in England to complete the connection, providing full Internet accessibility to the UoSAT-12.
These first tests used basic Internet security measures to restrict access to the spacecraft, but more stringent security measures -using commercially available solutions - would be applied for actual space missions, depending on each mission's needs.
Subsequent testing by the OMNI team in the next month will expand on basic network capabilities already established. The objective will be to demonstrate the use of standard Internet protocols to perform a wide range of spacecraft operations. Later this year, testing will incorporate the final technologies required to support full operational deployment of Internet protocols for future space missions.
The OMNI project comprises engineers from Goddard's Information Systems Center, Computer Sciences Corporation, Surrey Satellite Technology, Ltd., and VyTek LLC. Funding for the project is provided by the Communications Technology Project of NASA's Space Operations Management Office.
For more information about the OMNI project, visit their web site at: http://ipinspace.gsfc.nasa.gov/
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