9 Oct 2011

Super-fast internet – across the solar system

A Surrey satellite firm is helping to establish an interplanetary internet system that could speed up the movement of data through space – and allow us to explore stars 30 trillion miles away.

The internet, so ubiquitous on earth, is now challenging the final frontier. Nasa astronaut Soichi Noguchi became a Twitter superstar during this stay on the International Space Station.

But the internet in space is not just being used for social media stunts. It is also being used to control unmanned craft, like those made here in Surrey.

From Surrey Satellite Technology they are beaming the existing terrestrial internet into space, to control 14 satellites currently orbiting the earth.

But the capability only extends so far because the internet we all know relies on a constant connection – something that is just not possible once a spacecraft leaves the earth’s orbit.

Interplanetary internet

But that is now changing with a new interplanetary internet system being developed. The man who invented the internet on earth is now pioneering the internet in space.

Computer scientist Vint Cerf told Channel 4 News: “It’s very early days yet, but the protocols have become sufficiently robust that we believe they can be standardised soon and that all space-faring nations could use them in order to grow an interplanetary backbone, in order to support both manned and robotic space exploration.”

The next big step after interplanetary exploration is to consider sending a mission to the nearest star. Vint Cerf, computer scientist

Satellites orbiting the earth are close enough to maintain the constant internet connection needed for effective communications.

But further into space, the more likely it becomes that objects such as planets and the sun will break the connection.

The new interplanetary internet system will relay the signal to spacecraft spread across the solar system in bite-sized chunks, speeding up the time it takes to send data back to earth.

Dai Stanton of Surrey Satellite Technology told Channel 4 News: “In the deep space environment we have very long delays. You get to the outer planets, you’re talking delays of days.

“The interplanetary internet allows us to move the data around in an efficient way, despite these long delays. That means more data, quicker data, and more accurate data.”

Reaching to the stars

But it is not just the solar system. Vint Cerf is leading US government-funded research looking at how this network could even be used to guide a probe to the nearest star: Alpha Centauri.

“The next big step after doing interplanetary exploration,” Mr Cerf said, “is to consider sending a mission to the nearest star, which should be Alpha Centauri.

We’re going to need a network of sensors that literally span the solar system. Vint Cerf

“In order to get there, we have to go a lot faster than we know how to do today. And we also have to know how to signal. We’re four light years away, which is a really long distance – about 30 trillion miles.

“To do that, we’re going to need a network of sensors that literally span the solar system and can pick up this weak signal that’s coming back from a robot near Alpha Centauri.

“It’s like everything else: engineering turning science fiction into reality.”

Surrey Satellite Technology will launch seven new craft connected to the interplanetary internet system this year, and the technology is already helping speed up communications to Mars as more spacecraft are reprogrammed.

If all countries were to adopt this system, it could transform deep-space communications, helping us understand our place in the universe.