Cisco goes to space

As you all know, Cisco Systems wants to come to our houses via our TVs. But Cisco also wants to go further and has already put a special router in orbit. With its CLEO router, military personnel can receive images from satellites on their laptops and send commands to the device over IP.

With the purchase of Scientific-Atlanta, we've learned yesterday that Cisco Systems wants to come to our houses via our TVs. But Cisco also wants to go further and has already put a special router in orbit. The Cisco Low Earth Orbit (CLEO) project uses a customized version of Cisco's Mobile Access Router, typically used to connect computer equipment to an IP network. It was launched in 2003 and is still operational. With CLEO, military personnel can receive images from satellites on their laptops and send commands to the device over IP. Even if the router has been specifically modified for space, it's still using commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) technology which is far cheaper than the devices currently used by big satellite companies.

So far, Cisco has only said that CLEO was only a proof-of-concept exercise.

Routers in space hold promise for future satellite-based broadband technologies, which could make wide-area data network services ubiquitous and more robust than current satellite data services, says Rick Sanford, director of Cisco's Global Space Initiatives group. The use of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) computing and network technology is also of interest to the government and aerospace industry.

Here is a brief history of the project.

Working with Surrey Satellite Technology, Cisco made CLEO available for launch in 2003 as piggyback cargo on the UK Disaster Monitoring Consortium satellite, part of a satellite network used to photograph hurricanes, wildfires and earthquakes from space.
Last year, CLEO was put to its big test, executed by the Air Force, Army and NASA's Glenn Research Centre at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. In this test, military personnel sitting in a jeep used a laptop running special General Dynamics software to make IP-based contact with CLEO. From this Virtual Mission Operations Centre, laptop operators were able to download images from the satellite and send command-and-control signals to the device over IP.

Below is a diagram showing the CLEO network topology for the Vandenberg demonstration, which was a secure space-based network-centric operations network (Credit: NASA and Cisco).

CLEO network topology for the Vandenberg demonstration

Using satellites for communications is not new. So what Cisco is bringing to the party? Apparently, CLEO has two key advantages over current technologies used by satellite companies.

Having a router on a satellite dynamically move packets to different nodes could make satellite signals harder to jam, allowing satellites to route signals to each other in the air or on the ground.
Satellite makers such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin are working on on-board processing technology that allows for more advanced communication beyond the bent-pipe method, says Max Engle, aerospace and telecom analyst for Frost and Sullivan. But COTS network gear, such as industry-standard routers, IP stacks and protocols, is still not widely used

And how long CLEO will last? Even Cisco's engineers don't really know.

"The design life of the spacecraft is 20 years," says Lloyd Wood, space initiatives manager at Cisco. But because the router has no radiation shielding, "we don't know how long it will last."
If or when CLEO or the satellite does fail, the satellite can be de-orbited to keep paths clutter free. But Cisco won't be able to recover its first space-travelling product for posterity.

And if you're interested by the CLEO project, here is a list of documents to read.

Sources: Phil Hochmuth, Network World, November 17, 2005; and various douments from Cisco

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