NASA, tech firms work toward remote Internet links

Researchers at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and several industry players have developed a system to facilitate Internet connections from even the most remote locations on the planet using satellite technology.

More than two years in the making, the system is designed to facilitate secure Internet connections from ships, planes or even the tops of mountains. NASA spearheaded the effort and received help from several technology companies, including the networking equipment maker Cisco Systems and satellite communications provider Globalstar.

"From our standpoint, this is a wonderful thing because it allows us to put [all] kinds of devices in space," said Phil Paulsen, the project manager for space Internet technologies at NASA's Glenn Research Center next to Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. NASA demonstrated the technology from a port in Cleveland last month before 100-plus onlookers representing the Pentagon, FBI and National Security Agency, among other government agencies.

The project initially was launched to explore how satellites could be wired with Internet protocols to enable links between terrestrial entities and computer systems on earth. A key motivation was the desire of NASA researchers and officials at the Defense Department to integrate their ground-based data networks.

Paulsen explained, for example, how NASA "researchers traditionally don't have access to experiments that are launched in space." But with a "network of networks, we could give access ... to our researchers at their parent locations" to space-based projects that they helped design.

NASA sought industry assistance under cooperative agreements with several private companies. Cisco provided the space agency with its miniature router technology, which the firm had been developing on its own for a year. The device is small enough to fit on spacecraft but can direct Internet traffic at the same pace as a full-size router.

Cleveland-based Western Datacom supplied a component to encrypt the data transferred through the router, making it more secure than a common wireless Internet connection.

Paulsen said testing the system from space would have been extremely costly, so the group "looked for a platform that would at least act like something in space." It launched the system from a Coast Guard boat 18 miles off the shore of Lake Erie and logged onto the Internet by dialing into an earth-based computer server using a Globalstar satellite-phone connection.

Although NASA is still developing the system, Rick Sanford, director of Space Initiatives for Cisco's space group, suggested that the technology could meet a range of needs for efforts such as national defense and emergency response. "We see opportunities in the area of police and fire and emergency," as well as commercial firms such as shipping companies, he said.

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