Ohio University is open

Portion of West Union Street remains closed following multiple structure fire. More Information
 
Research Communications

Connecting the Cosmos 

Can NASA use the internet in space? Ohio University researchers help design the interplanetary technology.

August 14, 2009

Though the internet pervades life on Earth, the astronauts and satellites patrolling space can’t simply point, click and communicate data via the terrestrial “information superhighway.” A planet, the moon or sun spots frequently interfere with internet protocols. Service is spotty.

“It’s a very different environment,” says Shawn Ostermann, Ohio University chair and associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science. “In space you might need to talk to Mars, but it’s on the other side of the sun. You may not be able to send a message there for another day, a week or a month.”

Ostermann and Hans Kruse, Ohio University professor of information and telecommunication systems, have been working with the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) in Pasadena, California, and the Glenn Research Center in Cleveland the last three years to solve that problem. The researchers, aided by a team of graduate students from the Scripps College of Communication and Russ College of Engineering and Technology, are developing standards and protocols for new software called Delay Tolerant Networking (DTN), which some have called the “interplanetary internet.”

“DTN is actually more like e-mail than the web,” Kruse notes. “So if I send a DTN message and it doesn’t arrive, what happened to it? How can we find the problem that’s holding up the message? Under our grant with NASA, Ohio University is working on creating the tools and procedures to make that possible.”

The new technology aims to automate the delivery of information to spacecraft. Right now, NASA must transfer data manually, which can be time-consuming, Kruse explains. Ohio University has worked with NASA to develop new protocols for the DTN system to resolve these issues. The researchers also wrote some of the software for the current system, which was largely produced by JPL.

The software already is running experimentally on the international space station, Kruse reports, but the team is moving closer to implementing it more widely for NASA deep space missions. Earlier this month, Ohio University researchers successfully completed the first major terrestrial trial of the system, a two-day test that called for collaboration with project partners as far away as Stockholm, Sweden. 

“It was really exciting, as this test was several months in the making,” Kruse says. “It showed us what works, but what we still need to fix. From our perspective it was very successful.”

The test was also a great real-world experience for the team’s nine graduate students, who learned how to manage large software systems, fix glitches without creating more bugs, and navigate relationships with the partner government agencies, Ostermann says. And the stakes for success are high.

“Ten years from now, a line of computer code they wrote might be circling Saturn, so it needs to work,” Ostermann says.

Both faculty and students are excited to watch NASA deploy the software, he adds. The project should be complete by the end of 2010.

“We’re hoping to save NASA a lot of money, solve problems, and allow them to do new things they couldn’t do otherwise,” Ostermann says.

Ostermann and Kruse have worked on research projects that call for their joint expertise in space communications and network protocols since the mid-1990s. Their work led to a memorandum of understanding with NASA Glenn Research Center, which now regularly calls on the team to solve such research questions.

“Ohio University has a unique mix of computer science and networking technology expertise, skill sets that don’t exist anywhere else,” Kruse says. 

By Andrea Gibson

For more information about this research, contact:

Hans Kruse, 740.593.4891, kruse@ohio.edu

Shawn Ostermann, 740.593.1566, ostermann@eecs.ohiou.edu