NASA takes Internet into space

The Columbia space shuttle has become an Internet node, with a little help from Linux

NASA has been conducting tests using IP, the protocol for transmitting data across the Internet, to communicate with the Columbia space shuttle over the last fortnight, turning the shuttle into a node on the Web.

The experiment aims to improve data transfer between space craft and mission control on the ground. It is could lead to shuttles and satellites operating as Web servers in the future, and is part of NASA's OMNI (operating missions as nodes on the Internet) project.

The Columbia space shuttle was launched on 16 January, and on board is a PC running a version of Red Hat Linux, according to BBC Online. This computer has been communicating with NASA by sending IP packets via satellite, meaning that data can be transferred even when the shuttle is on the far side of the earth.

NASA has been working on methods of extending the Internet into space for several years. In 2001 it created the world's first Web server in space, and a year earlier it used FTP to download instrument data from Columbia to the ground.

By using standard Internet protocols to communicate with its space craft, NASA believes it can cut the costs of future missions and achieve effective data transfer using a range of applications.

"Spacecraft using IP protocols enables seamless routing of data, email, SMTP servers, virtual private networking, FTP transfers, remote file systems and Java interfaces, and other custom protocols as appropriate," said NASA scientists in a recent presentation.

Columbia is due to return to Earth on 1 February.

This story was published before Columbia was destroyed on 1 February during its re-entry to Earth's atmosphere. For further details, visit the NASA Web site.

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