Engineers from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., used software called Disruption-Tolerant Networking, or DTN, to transmit dozens of space images to and from a NASA science spacecraft located more than 32 million kilometers (20 million miles) from Earth. The successful experiment could pave the way for an interplanetary Internet, able to support complex missions involving multiple landed, mobile and orbiting spacecraft, as well as providing reliable communications for astronauts on the moon's surface.

NASA and Vint Cerf, a vice president at Google, Inc., in Mountain View, Calif., partnered 10 years ago to develop the DTN software protocol, which unlike TCP/IP does not assume a continuous end-to-end connection. In DTN, data packets are not discarded if a destination path can't be found. Instead, each network node keeps custody of the information as long as necessary, until it can safely communicate with another node. This store-and-forward method ensures that information does not get lost when no immediate path to the destination exists.

The experiment is the first in a series of planned demonstrations to qualify the technology for use on various upcoming space missions, according to Jay Wyatt, manager of the Space Networking and Mission Automation Program Office at JPL. In the next round of testing, a NASA-wide demonstration using new DTN software loaded onboard the International Space Station is scheduled to begin next summer.

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