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IPNSIG Newsletter May, 2021

Why do we need an Interplanetary Internet, and what are we doing in order to have it?

The questions of why an Interplanetary Internet should exist, in what ways it could affect our lives, and if and why we should be involved in it, probably arise in most of our minds when we hear about such a thing as an “Interplanetary Internet”.

I offer here my answers to these questions and my own reasons for them, which could be useful in understanding the issues at stake.

Before tackling these questions, however, it is important to know that the Interplanetary Internet is based on DTN (Delay and Disruption Tolerant Networking) principles. The application of DTN principles has resulted in the development of the Bundle Protocol (BP) and other communications protocols such as the Licklider Transmission Protocol. These have been designed to support traffic exchange between network endpoints, even when connectivity is temporarily lost. Data is stored in the network until connectivity is restored.

In contrast to BP, the regular Internet is based on the TCP/IP protocol, which needs stable and persistent connectivity to work well. When connectivity is lost, intermediate routers discard data.

For example, if I want to send an email when there is no connection available on the Internet, I get the message that it cannot reach the destination and I will have to wait until connectivity is restored. Interestingly, for email, retransmissions take place at the application level: the email application itself keeps trying to connect. Although there are some tricks in software that can simulate DTN methods –for example, in cell phones and others– the email seems to go through eventually, but it doesn’t really go through until the end-to-end connection is established.

The beauty of DTN is that this behavior does not need to be coded into each application; this is just part of the system: you send the email with software that is BP-enabled and it will just find, by itself, when and how to travel to its destination and will be stored in the network during intervals of disrupted connectivity.

About my reasons:

First, we all know of some unstable conditions in our Internet connectivity at home or at work. This may not be a problem if I am just watching a movie; but it can become a major issue when we are using the Internet in activities such as those related to health care, sensitive industries, accounting or education. This problem is related to the way the Internet protocols work as described above. Derived from DTN principles, the Interplanetary Internet could be part of the solution to this problem. There might, however, be a challenge to overcome if the application uses high data rates (such as streaming video) since the available memory in the Internet routers could quickly become congested, blocking the flow of traffic for all applications.

Secondly, the current pandemic has demonstrated the need for a communication link to keep life running as normally as possible, and clearly the Internet has been this link, which is used for buying goods, for work and for talking with our family and friends. But sometimes connectivity problems arise, and in those situations, often all we can do is just cross our arms and get stuck and frustrated. Using the DTN principles of the Interplanetary Internet would keep data in the network until it can be sent when connectivity is restored. The same congestion question arises here. Current experiments with the Bundle Protocol on the terrestrial Internet are aimed, in part, at exploring solutions to the congestion problem.

Thirdly, many parts of our world don’t have a stable Internet connection yet, despite all the efforts done by many companies, organizations and volunteers, who work every day for this to happen. In catastrophic or crisis situations, the Internet link that would be mostly useful, gets broken because of the characteristics of the Internet protocols described above. The Interplanetary Internet would be part of the solution to this problem as well.

And fourthly, the current pandemic has also placed all of us in a situation actually quite similar to living on separate planets, in terms of personal and family care, lockdowns, exercising at home, and communicating with our loved ones through a screen. So, I am going to see the good part of it: most of us are now being trained to soon become Astronauts!

In the not-so-distant future, we may be going to visit other planets and moons in our Solar System if you’ve been following the news. We should have an Interplanetary Internet working already, so when that happens, we can connect with our loved ones here on Earth –if we are bold enough to be part of those projects!

It is important to consider that DTN technologies are not a replacement of the Internet. The Interplanetary Internet fills the gap where the Internet fails. It is possible that you cannot watch your favorite movie on BP, as you can do in the regular Internet, but when you are in a bad connectivity situation or in a catastrophic situation, the Interplanetary Internet would find its most useful application to keep your life running.

This having been said, in IPNSIG, we are working to make the Interplanetary Internet operational for normal life on Earth and in Space.

The Pilot Project Working Group (PWG) of IPNSIG, which I am honored to lead, is working on several projects, with this goal in mind. We count on the very hard work of many volunteers, who are making history by bringing the Interplanetary Internet into reality and for it to bear on normal living conditions.

Technologies like DTN today, in the same way the Internet was years ago, are being designed by inventors and creators in laboratories, universities and government agencies. Many times, these technologies are not thought at the outset as having the potential of being used for objectives that can affect and modify our normal ways of living.

It is well-known that from the creation of most inventions, it takes about 25 to 30 years until they affect normal living conditions of most people.

The Internet research project started in 1973, based on earlier work on the Arpanet which began in 1968. Work on the World Wide Web application on the Internet began in 1989 and became accessible to the public in the early 1990s.

Since the inception of DTN design until now, 23 years have passed, so the Interplanetary Internet is growing up. The project began at JPL in March of 1998, involving our colleagues on IPNSIG Board, Vint Cerf and Scott Burleigh, among others at JPL, SPARTA and MITRE. It now involves most of NASA’s laboratories and researchers in the space agencies of Korea (KARI), the European Union (ESA), Japan (JAXA), and the UN (CCSDS) as well as APL and  the Internet Engineering Task Force.

We are working on making the Interplanetary Network available in many ways.

From connecting the Clouds computers, to making it work in challenging conditions, such as:

  • The Arctic
  • Mobile phones
  • Radio communication systems
  • Verifying the stability of the operational networks
  • Making software that permits home users help us in the development of the Interplanetary Internet from their computers.
  • Share information between the several Bundle Protocol versions so as to make them compatible.
  • Connect Earth Internet and Interplanetary Internet with Space on satellites
  • Send videos and voice and music on the Interplanetary Internet.
  • Send medical records running in the Interplanetary Internet.

Some achievements by the PWG to highlight are:

  1. Connecting different Cloud computing services to the Interplanetary Internet with the Bundle Protocol.
  2. Interplanetary Internet applied in the Arctic with mobile apps and radio.
    Following reindeers and protecting the ecosystem.
  3. Medical Records for Space Exploration
    Allowing to connect Earth health care facilities’ medical records with Space systems and make it usable in Earth areas where connectivity is unstable.
  4. Video and Audio on Interplanetary Internet
    To allow visual and audio communications on the Interplanetary Internet.
  5. Space ESA-OPSAT project.
    Allowing the compatibility of different implementations of the Bundle Protocol to interconnect.
  6. Terrestrial Interplanetary Internet Testing Plan.
    Soon you will have the possibility to help us test the Interplanetary Internet technology from your computer.
  7. Interplanetary Internet Manager.
    Permits easier connectivity of Bundle Protocol Nodes on Earth tests…

From IPNSIG, we would like to hear from you and what would be your ideas to be involved in the development of the Interplanetary Internet.

Oscar Garcia

Pilot Projects Working Group Lead

Collaborators: Vinton Cerf, Yosuke Kaneko, Ernesto Yattah, Michael Snell

IPNSIG – InterPlanetary Networking Special Interest Group


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