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This article was Originally Published on Oct 04, 2005 in Volume: 9  Issue: 8

Protocols in Space

Orbiting router shows potential for IP-based COTS communication technology to control satellites.

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A successful recent experiment in using the Internet Protocol to control an orbiting satellite illustrates the potential value of commercial communications and networking technology in space, according to an executive with Cisco, the company that sponsored the project.

“We decided to try to get one of our commercially available routers into space and test the full suite of communications protocols that Cisco offers today,” said Rick Sanford, director of global space initiatives for the Cisco Global Space, Defense and Security Group. “The concept of TCP/IP in space isn’t new. What was unique about our approach was in taking a commercial available router, along with the full suite of protocols in our Internet operating system, and putting it in space to test the protocols.

The story revolves around CLEO, also known as the Cisco router in Low Earth Orbit experiment. Two years ago, Cisco launched a COTS router onboard a U.K.-based disaster-monitoring satellite. While the satellite's primary purpose is providing images of the Earth's environment, the router is part of a secondary experiment that involves a wide range of groups, including SSTL, NASA, the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Army, and General Dynamics.

The router tests form part of a " Virtual Mission Operations Center" (VMOC), an initiative of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Rapid Acquisition Net Centricity, executed as a collaborative experiment between the Air Force, the Army and NASA's Glenn Research Center.

Using only a regular laptop with Internet access, authorized users could acquire satellite telemetry, request images from SSTL's satellite dynamically, and perform real-time access to on-orbit satellite equipment. No ground station or special equipment required. As part of the experiment, the VMOC camp, at Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA, specified areas of the Earth and requested photographs, which were taken by the satellite and delivered from SSTL using standard IP. The software relied on mobile routing to communicate across the Internet via NASA Glenn to SSTL's ground station and up to the Cisco router onboard the satellite.

“From a technology perspective, we’ve proven that you can control both the spacecraft and the mission payload using purely commercial technologies,” said Sanford. “I wouldn’t advocate doing that for any of the proposed missions that the government has today, but the concept that we have to spend nonrecurring engineering dollars to sort out communications technologies isn’t required any more.”

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