The conquest of space goes hand in with the Internet.

Internet and space exploration: two stories running in parallel tracks.

On the one hand, the biggest and most interconnected communication network ever existed, on the other hand a project that does not stop representing a very important driving engine for scientific and technological research, as well as a valuable source of great literary and multimedia production. If it is not a mystery that their origins are strictly connected, maybe the connection between their future developments it is not famous as well. Let’s discover it together.

To the birth of the Web.

The Space Run traditionally dates back to 1957, when the Soviet Union placed in orbit Sputnik 1, the first satellite to orbit around the Earth. It was a terrible blow to the United States, who replied by founding two research centres bound to make history: ARPA (Advanced Research Project Agency), chief of telecommunication projects, and NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration), chief of aeronautic and aerospace research.

ARPA’s role was the result of a very careful choice, because until then almost every research instituition could rely on quite powerful calculators, which, however, were completely isolated from each other. Transferring data from one machine to another required a long work, usually manual, since data and program formats were different for every calculator, entailing a huge amount of time and effort.

1969 was a crucial year. We all associate this date with Apollo 11, the mission that landed Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins on the Moon, but at the same time mankind was about to make “a giant leap” from another point of view. Indeed 1969 was in fact the year in which ARPANet was born, the first communication network between computers of the Universities of Stanford and Los Angeles. Soon, to this network were added the University of Santa Barbara, the University of Utah and the BBN (Bolt, Bernek and Newman), an American acoustic engineering company. The first Internet core was born.

From the 70’s to nowadays.

ARPANet started to spread like wildfire in academic communities and soon arose the need to define shared protocols for data transmission. Bob Kahn (BBN) and Victor Cerf (Stanford) took charge of it, by creating TCP/IP protocols, still used today.

The adoption of shared protocols paved the way for a global diffusion of ARPANet, which had already become Internet. In 1984 TCP/IP protocols were also adopted in Europe, expanding the network to a new continent and starting an extremely profitable cooperation. Indeed, it was the English scientist Tim Berners-Lee (CERN) who invented in 1990 the World Wide Web, or in other words, the Internet as we know it today (you can still visit the first ever online website here).

The 90’s marked the arrival of the Internet in everyday life. With the coming of the Web and personal computers, the Internet stopped being an academic tool used only by a few experts to arrive in offices, homes, drastically changing their people’s habits and provoking upheaval, both positive and negative, that we all know.

Exactly as the Internet acquired a global dimension, with the end of the Cold War even the run to the space stopped being a prerogative of the two superpowers and took the shape of a collective effort. In 1975 the ESA (European Space Agency) was established, which marked the participation of Europe in international cooperation, soon followed by Eastern countries  – China, Japan and India.

In that period, space missions took on different connotations that persists still today. The development of autonomous aircraft is preferred, since they can reach enormous distances from which it is possible to collect and send back valuable data without risking human lives. The presence of humans is instead confined to the “near” Earth orbit, where the International Spatial Station has been since 2000.

Towards the future: Internet goes to space.

Actually, the cooperation between Internet and space exploration keeps being interrupted, yet assuming new forms and goals. Since 1998 scientists of Inter Planetary Networking Special Interest Group (IPNSIG), a research group part of Internet Society, study how to export Internet beyond Earth borders.

The project is part of a greater purpose: promotion of space exploration and facilitation of an efficient communication between Earth and space. Indeed, if it is true that the problem about sending data collected by aircrafts on exploration back to Earth has always arisen, it is also true that for a very long time every spatial mission has provided the development of a proper system of transmission, generally not very efficient. It was one of the fathers of the Internet, Vinton Cerf, who suggested facing the problem organically, by establishing an interplanetary communication network.

Why can’t we simply extend the terrestrial Internet to the rest of space? The reasons are mainly two. The first reason is the distance that in space become relevant also to the signals travelling at the speed of lights. For instance, the average distance between the Earth and Mars is about twelve light-minutes and a half, an unmanageable delay for TCP/IP protocols. The second problem is in the motion of the celestial bodies that can physically obstruct the transmission of signals for hours, days or even months.

For these reasons has become necessary to rethink the functioning of the Internet. That is the starting point of the “store-and-forward” approach. The idea is to set up a network of transmitters that are able not only to retransmit a pack of data (as the modern router), but also to memorize it for short or long periods of time, so that it can be retransmitted as soon as there are favourable conditions. This idea brought to the creation of a new kind of protocol named DTN (Delay/Disruption Tolerant Network).

 How will we establish this kind of network? The idea is to take advantage of spacecraft that are launched for normal missions and that then remain in the space. If all these spacecraft implemented DTN protocols (or if they were installed once the main mission was completed), for each mission a new node to the interplanetary network of communication would be added. This process of reconversion already started in 2004, and keeps going on today.

Beyond every border.

If you think that research is ahead of its time, you need to know that the IPNSIG is already thinking about the moment when we will be able to reach the nearest star after the Sun, Alpha Centauri. In that case distances will be even farther (more than four light-years) and at the moment we don’t even know how to physically send a space vehicle so far in reasonable times, although scientists are already looking for effective solutions to communicate with those hidden points in the space.

We could also ask ourselves what is the sense of committing to problems that will become part of our lives only in a very distant future. By the way, it is important to remember that in science, as well as in many other sectors, what is often matters is not the result but the process. Seventy years ago the Space Race gave us the Internet, one of the most powerful and persuasive tools that we have nowadays. We can not exclude that the Interplanetary Internet could lead us to other great scientific conquests, but will be up to us face the challenge. 

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