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Cyberspace-age: Interplanetary Internet is final frontier

July 23, 1998
Web posted at: 2:04 PM ET

by Elizabeth Wasserman mars internet

(IDG) -- Geneva, Switzerland Space is the final frontier. Even for the Internet.

In a scenario straight out of science fiction, a noted scientist outlined plans Wednesday for an interplanetary Internet hook-up, space age e-mail and a possible .mars domain in cyberspace.

"The time is now to think beyond the Earth," Vinton Cerf told the annual meeting of the Internet Society to audible gasps among the 1,700 attendees. "Lest you think this is all fantasy, let me assure you that it is quite real."

Cerf, an MCI senior vice president who helped developed the Internet architecture with Robert Kahn in the 1970s, revealed that he has been in talks for the past three months about this cyberspace-age scenario with scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. The space exploration lab last summer put a land rover on Mars, communicating with the robot from Earth with protocols that could be used as a basis to create an interplanetary communications system.

NASA officials are currently developing plans for the next mission to Mars and, Cerf said, the interplanetary Internet could play a role in that mission. NASA is scheduled to detail further plans in early August, he said.

Cerf's talks with scientists at the lab have centered around developing a special set of protocols to carry communications between planets. In the same way that the Internet is made up of the networking of computer networks, this solar-system-wide medium would link the Internets on different planets. In essence, the technologies already exist, but they need to be put together like "tinker toys," Cerf said.

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The problem with using the current Earth-bound Internet protocols that he helped develop, TCP/IP, is the significant time delay in sending packets of information between planets. That delay which could amount to hours would interfere with the ability to receive completed communications on the other end.

Other details that need to be worked out are what domains would exist outside of Earth. Cerf, noting that the Internet Society's annual meeting this year has attracted attention because it will end with a summit on the future of domain name administration, suggested that an additional level would need to be added, designating what planet a communication is destined for in other words, we might see vcerf@mci.com.earth. Or, if Cerf becomes known as the "father of the interplanetary Internet," perhaps vcerf@mci.com.jupiter.

Cerf's presentation added a sci-fi aspect to a conference that is otherwise more dry and academic in nature sample sessions are entitled "To Cache or Not to Cache," "Overcoming Language Barriers on the Internet" and "Distance Education: Why, How and What For?"

The Internet visionary was elected as chairman of the society's board Tuesday. But he came under scrutiny by reporters about the need for such a system of interplanetary "gateways" and satellite orbiters off of which to ricochet communications when a planet is on the other side of the Sun. The most immediate need he could define was communications between researchers, visitors and/or settlers in space with Earth. "The whole idea is to create a standard," Cerf said, so that the services are there "when we do get to the point where we need all the services in space that we have become accustomed to on Earth."

In recent years, the Internet Society has been more focused on helping developing nations gain the tools, technologies and expertise needed to communicate with the global computer network. In fact, there are only about a dozen of the roughly 250 recognized nations and/or territories with country-code domains on Earth that remain without any Internet hook ups at all, according to George Sadowsky, who heads the society's tutorial program for developing nations. Those countries include six African nations, several island nations in the South Pacific and North Korea, he said.

Despite gains in Internet use in the developing world, the concept of the Net in space attracted worldwide attention Wednesday.

"It took 30 years to get the Internet to where we are now," Cerf said in an interview. "Thirty years from now, we have to assume there will be colonies on the moon, colonies on Mars and other planets and research stations all over."

The Internet brought much of the magic of NASA's last mission to Mars down to Earth. Last summer, millions of people worldwide logged on to watch the Mars mission and the photographs and scientific measurements taken by the mobile rover deployed on that planet's surface. The images were broadcast over the Internet in one of the medium's most popular events to date, allowing average people to see the latest pictures from the red planet at the same time as NASA scientists.

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