The International Space Station (ISS) has become the first piece of a Solar System-wide Internet network. Thanks to a piece of technology called Delay/Disruption Tolerant Networking (DTN), future Moon and Mars missions will be able to link up to the ISS and beam information efficiently back and forth. One day, when Martian settlers are engaging in a bit of Netflix binge-watching, they’ll have DTN to thank.
According to NASA, DTN works by providing something called an automatic “store and forward” data network to this corner of the Solar System. This allows partial bundles of data to be stored in various nodes along a communication path, whereupon they are reassembled into a cohesive whole at their final destination, be that a spacecraft or a human settlement.
Traditional Internet protocols, like the one you’re reading this article through, require there to be a constant connection between all the nodes when data is being transmitted. DTN gets over this by allowing the temporary storage of fragments of data. With the chaotic nature of deep space, and the chance many small objects may get in the way or that some nodes are out of line thanks to the orbits of the objects they are near, this advantage is significant.
DTN was added to the Telescience Resource Kit (TReK), a software package that allows people to send and receive data from ground-based centers to nodes aboard the ISS itself. This has effectively transformed the ISS into a node itself – a router for the Internet, 400 kilometers (250 miles) up.
How DTN works. NASA.gov Video via YouTube
In order for DTN to work in the long term, it needs to be compatible on an international scale with pre-existing Internet networks, which is why NASA has been working with the Internet Research Task Force, the Consultative Committee for Space Data Systems, and the Internet Engineering Task Force. Yes, these organizations really do exist. Universities, researcher centers, private space companies, and CubeSat developers already have access to DTN through open-source code.
Far from just beaming reruns of Game of Thrones episodes to future colonies on the Jovian moon of Europa, the DTN system will be able to provide a powerful communication network to disaster relief efforts on Earth. After all, the system is designed to operate even when a line of communication is temporarily blocked. Theoretically, then, there’s no chance that vital information getting through to troops, evacuation teams, or fire brigades on the ground will be lost if the connection temporarily goes down.