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E-Mail In Zero G: Astronauts And The Web

In space, no one can hear you scream. But scoring an Internet hookup suddenly isn't out of the question.

NASA scientists have developed software they hope will lead to an Internet-like network in deep space. It's not that astronauts will be watching "Alien" on The goal of the technology NASA has been testing is to get spacecraft to communicate in a networked way like computers now do on Earth. It will make missions easier to manage.

The technology is young at this point: Engineers have been sending images between a spacecraft and computers on the ground that are simulating landers, orbiters and other essential parts of a Mars mission.

Think of the way space communication works now as manual labor. Sending messages between antennas on Earth and antennas on spaceships requires heavy human involvement because of the great distances involved and the method of transmission.

But just as computers handle the heavy lifting of sending e-mail on Earth, NASA wants to have an equally automated system in space.

"It's like the Internet, only the Internet assumes basically everything's connected and there aren't a lot of delays," said Jay Wyatt, manager of the Space Networking and Mission Automation Program office at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "The Internet model kind of breaks down in deep space."

The space agency has been working for 10 years on the project with Vint Cerf, one of the Internet's key inventors and now chief Internet evangelist for Google Inc.

The engineers have developed protocols for what they call Disruption-Tolerant Networking (DTN), which they say helps computers on spaceships talk to each other even when they're so far away that a constant connection can't be established.

Unlike the TCP/IP protocols that form the Internet's backbone on Earth, the new protocols adjust for the fact that information might have to be stored for a long time until the intended recipient comes back online. It also includes the capability that the computers might try to find another recipient to keep the information moving, much like Internet traffic can be rerouted on Earth when a server goes down.

NASA plans to test the software next summer on the International Space Station. This is just the beginning, and not the end, of the latest round of legal battles over the detainees and given the direction, or lack of it, that the Supreme Court has given to everyone involved, we are likely to see more and more of these sorts of cases no matter what the new administration does when it takes over next year.

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