“Space: the final frontier.”
Indelibly associated with Gene Roddenberry’s celebrated Star Trek mythos, these words also carry additional significance for the world of open standards in telecommunication. In a collaborative address at a conference hosted by the Internet Society (ISOC) earlier this year, web pioneer and industry juggernaut Vint Cerf identified the need for standardized protocols for interplanetary communication. While this call to action may sound like dialogue from a science fiction prequel, Cerf assured his audience that the need is a practical one.
“We have this fairly old infrastructure [for communicating with spacecraft] and the parties who are responsible, that have the problem of maintaining the equipment, don’t seem to be able to put in additional ground capability.” said Cerf, referencing the nearly fifty year old Deep Space Network created by NASA. “It’s my personal belief that we should be advocating for end-to-end infrastructure for space exploration. We should be providing ‘off the shelf’ capability for the interplanetary protocols, the DTN (delay-tolerant networking) protocols, available for both spacecraft and ground use.”
Cerf pointed to the emergence of private aerospace companies such as SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Orbital Systems as evidence of the changing landscape in the field of space travel. As new players enter the field, they will be mostly unexposed to the idea of standardized protocols, which could create problems for establishing a robust communications infrastructure in the future. If efforts are put forth to establish standardized protocols for space travel now, they could be put to immediate use in the low-orbital applications that ongoing near-earth missions demand, while establishing a foundation for interplanetary communication in the future.
Historically, the traditional practice of aerospace scientists like those at NASA has been to adapt communication instruments and strategies to the specific needs of a mission. Cerf cautioned against this sort of approach, suggesting that “Infrastructure and mission-by-mission thinking are sometimes at odds with each other.”
Cerf’s parting thoughts to his audience of engineers, scientists, and industry experts that were that they should be vocal and intentional about the cultivation of standardized network protocols for interplanetary communication. Cerf went on to challenge those in attendance to collaborate and craft case studies based on realistic mission specifications to demonstrate the need for standards of this nature.