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IETF Sets Sights on Interplanetary Internets

The Internet Engineering Task Force has started to work on a version of the Net that won't be earthbound.

With an impending Mars mission scheduled for 2003, NASA has linked up with IETF, the group that sets standards for the Net, to formulate interplanetary Internet protocols.

What they have in mind is the creation of a network of Internets designed to facilitate communication among planets, satellites, asteroids, robotic spacecraft and crewed vehicles. A preliminary version of this Net will, it is hoped, be launched with the Mars mission.

"Fundamentally we want to deploy as much re-usable, standardized communications infrastructure as we can afford around the solar system," said Adrian J. Hooke, head of NASA's mission operations standardization program.

The idea is to create a stable interplanetary backbone network, or array of networks, that facilitates future space exploration, asteroid mining, satellite communication, and various other interplanetary missions. As such the interplanetary Net would consist of a "network of Internets" capable of managing the invariably lengthy delay times that complicate communication across vast regions of space.

"Store-and-forward networks would connect the more localized Internets," Hooke said. "Anywhere that there is a short-delay environment -- around Earth, within a free-flying spacecraft, on and around other planets -- we can use communications protocols that are fairly closely related to their terrestrial Internet counterparts."

While the idea of an interplanetary Net may sound far-fetched, the scheme's backers lend it more than a fair share of credibility.

Heading the project is Vinton Cerf, an MCI WorldCom vice president and none other that the creator of the foundation of communications on the current Internet -- the TCP/IP standard. Cerf is also chairman of the Internet Corp. for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the non-profit organization charged with maintaining the stability of the domain name system (DNS). Aside from NASA, the plan also has the support of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Mitre, Global Science and Technology, and SPARTA.