For many of us on Earth, the Internet is a vital part of our everyday lives. Rapid advances in developing high-bandwidth networks make it possible to communicate with family, friends, and business associates worldwide and rapidly search for and retrieve information, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. But in outer space, the Internet has not made its mark – until now.

Engineers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA, have successfully tested the first Internet-based deep-space communications network. They used software called Disruption-Tolerant-Networking (DTN) to successfully transmit space images to and from a NASA science spacecraft located more than 20 million miles from Earth. The software protocol, developed a decade ago by NASA and Vint Cert, vice president at Google, essentially retains data packets in a network node until they can be safely transmitted, preventing them from becoming lost when no immediate data path exists.

Achieving consistent, reliable Internet communications in outer space is no small feat. Network nodes are much farther apart than on Earth, exacerbating the effects of delays and disconnects. Anyone remember the early days of terrestrial online communications, with flaky dial-up modems and cryptic dialing strings? Getting and staying online back then was no easy task.

NASA hopes to avoid such glitches in space, where reliable data transmission is crucial to successful space travel. The agency will next test the DTN protocol aboard the International Space Station starting this summer. If all goes well, it may not be long until Internet communications become an integral part of future space missions.