By JASON BATES Space News Staff Writer posted: 03:06 pm ET, 26 April 2004
WASHINGTON — A leading U.S. supplier of computer networking equipment is beginning experiments with one of its Internet routers in space in an effort that proponents say ultimately could lead to lower-cost satellites and associated ground systems.
Experiments with the router, built by Cisco Systems Inc. of San Jose, Calif., were set to begin April 19 aboard the UK-DMC spacecraft, which is part of a multisatellite international Disaster Monitoring Constellation built by Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. of Guildford, England. The UK-DMC spacecraft was launched in September.
The Cisco Router in Low-Earth Orbit experiment is using commercial-off-the-shelf hardware for transmitting data using the Internet protocol, said Rick Sanford, director of Cisco’s Global Defense and Space Group of San Jose. The router was not radiation-hardened or otherwise qualified for spaceflight, although certain modifications were made to enable it so survive the temperature extremes and vacuum of the low Earth orbit environment, he said.
Internet-style communication has been tested in space at various times over the past decade, but no one has yet tested the full suite of protocols using commercially available hardware and standards-based software, Sanford said. If successful, the Cisco experiment could one day lead to much broader access to satellite data and networks, which today generally require customized space and ground equipment, he said.
"We hope this effort will result in being able to leverage space in a broader scope, more cost effectively than we can today," Sanford said.
Under a Space Act Agreement with NASA, Cisco has set up a router system in a laboratory at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland that functions in the same manner as the one aboard the UK-DMC satellite, said Phil Paulsen, NASA’s project manager for the experiment. Engineers at Glenn will test commands on the ground-based router before sending them to the router aboard UK-DMC, he said.
The Internet has proven to be an effective means of communication because fixed routers work well with other fixed routers, Paulsen said. If Internet routers can be made to work successfully on low Earth orbiting spacecraft, they can be made to work on mobile platforms on Earth, he said.
"Both NASA and the Department of Defense are interested in fielding brand new communications architectures," Paulsen said. "It is expected to be [Internet protocol-based], but there are questions about whether it makes sense to fly the routers in space or have the equipment on the ground."
Cisco will run the space experiment for an undetermined length of time, but plans to begin publishing the data as soon as possible so international space agencies, spacecraft developers and satellite operators can discuss ways to take advantage of the findings, Sanford said.
"There is no specific mission, no specific customer or specific driver compelling us to put the information in any particular type of format," Sanford said. "… We just want to determine how the router functions. Then smart people that build spacecraft can make the business and technology decision on whether to deploy this in place of something being custom-built today."
Sanford said Cisco does not expect to develop a business selling space hardware, and estimated that the market for satellite-based Internet routers may be only 15 or 20 units over the next decade. Instead, Cisco’s plans are focused on the ground-systems business that could be created if satellites are able to communicate using Internet protocols. With Internet-based communications, laptop computers and personal digital assistants could become de facto satellite ground stations.
"By using terrestrial communication protocols for spacecraft, there could be far more ground stations and terminals for spacecraft that have the capability," Sanford said. "The investment we’re making in space would result in additional ground network sales."
Other parties have expressed an interest in doing specialized experiments with Cisco’s router aboard the UK-DMC spacecraft, Sanford said. One such experiment will be conducted by the U.S. Air Force Space Battle Laboratory at Schriever Air Force Base, Colo.
The Air Force will use a system built by General Dynamics Corp. of Falls Church, Va., designed to allow a satellite to be controlled from any location within a network rather than a fixed ground station, said Capt. Brett Conner, program manager for the Air Force Battle Laboratory.
The system, dubbed the Virtual Mission Operations Center, also is intended to demonstrate the ability to download satellite data to mobile ground stations, Conner said. Imagery collected by the UK-DMC satellite will be sent via the Cisco router to the virtual operations center. The Air Force demonstration will begin in mid-May and run through mid-June, he said.
While the U.S. military has developed transportable ground stations for downloading satellite imagery, an Internet-based architecture would allow for smaller, more mobile, lower-cost terminals, Sanford said. Such stations also could be reconfigured relatively easily to communicate with other spacecraft that use Internet protocols for communications, he said.
"The early adopter of this in the United States without question would be the Department of Defense," Sanford said. "They have the most compelling mission need."
He said commercial telecommunication service providers, with their need to provide links for the last mile that it takes to reach a customer, also is a promising market.