Out of this world: NASA tests mobile IP in space

With the Jan. 16 launch of the space shuttle Columbia, NASA has been able to test for the first time how well the mobile Internet protocol works in space, according to Jim Rash, who leads NASA's Operating Missions as a Node on the Internet, or OMNI, program.

Although other NASA missions have tested standard Internet protocol, this mission is the first in which the emerging mobile standard is being used. Testing is being done at NASA's Goddard facility in Greenbelt, Md. The shuttle flight will last through Feb. 1.

If successful, it may pave the way for NASA's use of the IP protocol in more of its core space communications. By assigning each device a stationary in-care-of address in addition to its regular Internet address, mobile IP allows devices to stay connected as they jump between subnetworks.

In the shuttle's case, the onboard computer's signals are handed off to successive NASA satellites or ground stations as it orbits the earth, while keeping the connection back to Goddard live, Rash said.

NASA, wanting to cut costs, is looking to use as much commercial equipment and software as possible, so using such a protocol may prove invaluable for future space missions.

"The whole idea is to test off-the-shelf equipment to see what works and what doesn't," Rash said.

On board the shuttle, which circles the planet at approximately 150 miles in the atmosphere, an embedded PC module holds a 233-megahertz processor with 128 megabytes of random access memory and a solid-state 144-megabyte hard drive disk. The computer runs a commercial Linux operating system, Red Hat version 6.1, according to Frank Hallahan, a Computer Science Corp. employee, who is a member of the OMNI team.

Approximately 140 times during the shuttle mission, the Goddard crew will get a chance to communicate with this computer. The spacecraft will be maneuvered into position to establish contact with ground stations or NASA communications satellites. Then the crew will upload and download files, as well as remotely perform administrative tasks on the computer.

In November, NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, along with the Coast Guard, demonstrated how mobile IP would work with a Coast Guard ship on Lake Erie in order to replicate the distances needed to communicate by space. But this mission, STS-107, is the first actual space demonstration.

The IP experiment is part of the low-power transceiver payload, an experiment to test a global positioning system-based transceiver. It is part of the Fast Reaction Experiments Enabling Science, Technology, Applications and Research program, which puts to use spare room on shuttles for scientific experiments.

More information about the OMNI project can be found at http://ipinspace.gsfc.nasa.gov/.



About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.

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