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Looking for Orbital Routers
Industry Gears Up To Put Internet Nodes in Space, Defense News, April 24, 2006
A major hurdle holding up American efforts to create a space-based Internet hub for U.S. troops is the inability to develop and launch a data router that can do its job in Earth orbit, Air Force Lt. Gen. Michael Hamel said at the 22nd National Space Symposium April 3-6 in Colorado Springs.
The router - a computer networking device that directs packets of information to their coded destinations on an Internet-like system - is to be a key component of the Pentagon's $18 billion Transformational Satellite (TSAT) constellation. TSAT, in turn, is expected to provide enough on-the-move bandwidth to make the military's net-centric dreams come true.
Currently, the military sends its space-based communications through orbiting transponders, which can only handle certain signals at certain times. Internet-based routers would make it possible to send messages, video and other information as easily as transmitting through a networked computer on the ground.
But combining the power and flexibility of routers with the orbiting presence of a space-based transponder is difficult.
Internet routers are not built to handle the vibrations and gravity-escaping forces of a launch, said Rick Sanford, director of the Cisco Global Space Initiatives Group. Nor, he added, are they built to handle the rigors of space, where tiny meteorites and other debris can make Swiss cheese of a satellite that's not made for the task.
Radiation and solar flares can turn a spacecrafts electrical innards into an inert ball of tangled yarn if they arent sufficiently "hardened" against such hazards. The space industry has been hardening chips for transponders for decades. Now it will have to do the same for router components.
"Assurance is number one", Sanford said April 20. The ground-based routers also are not built to handle the more advanced signals the military would be using in space and the high degree of encryption for those signals, said Alexis Livanos, space technology vice president for Northrop Grumman, a TSAT subcontractor for Lockheed Martin.
Moreover, the router also must be able to communicate with existing transponder satellites, Livanos said.
Processing Under Space Pressure
So the problem is designing and building a router than can handle the signal processing and transmitting requirements with the reliability and assurance of the ground Internet that can withstand the rigors of a space launch and orbit.
Cisco Systems of San Jose, Calif., thinks it can do the job. Its software or hardware already handle about 85 percent of the information traversing the earthbound Internet. Now, Cisco wants to put its technology and know-how into orbit. Company officials see it as a matter of survival. "We need to be in space to be relevant", Sanford said during a briefing at the Space Symposium.
Cisco has proved that such a space-based Internet system is possible. In September 2003, a Cisco 3251 mobile access router was inserted by the Surrey Satellite Technology company into a satellite for the five-sat U.K.-DMC disaster-monitoring constellation. Cisco also developed a router that could be used for communications and to operate with a satellite sensor for tests with engineers at NASAs Goddard Space Flight Center. The router passed simulated space tests for moving information packets in Internet fashion. Cisco also has teamed with General Dynamics to develop and deploy an Internet-like communications ability through existing satellites to allow troops to communicate beyond their line of sight in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But company officials acknowledge that putting routers through simulated tests, establishing work-arounds with existing spacecraft or putting routers on relatively small commercial satellites is one thing. Deploying a military-capable space router is another matter.
Benefits of Orbital IP
Putting an Internet Protocol router in space would make communications easier and cheaper.
The components and connections of the earthbound Internet are built to worldwide standards, allowing network providers around the globe to easily exchange e-mail and Web pages, moving packets of data wherever they need to go. Communications can be handled with standard applications, not custom-designed software.
Today's satellites, by comparison, are more like orbiting towers of Babel. Most are just space cars for banks of transponders, each tuned to receive, amplify and transmit a specific set of radio frequency signals. Each country - sometimes even each branch of the military - built satellites to its own special design, deaf to the calls of others.
The only way for a U.S. Navy ship to talk to a British ship, for example, may be to uplink a message to a satellite, downlink it to a ground station, and transmit it to another ground station that can bounce it off yet another satellite.
Cisco's Rick Sanford said, "We want to reduce the cost of satellite communications by applying the same open standards and commercially produced equipment that have been used to build the Internet to satellites."
Applying those standards could offer a host of benefits for satellite Internet communications. Packets of information are more easily adapted than signals. Routers can prioritize the packets and make sure theres an easy flow of information. With routers, the data can be better measured and counted. It can be compressed and more easily secured with specially designed software firewalls.