Shooting for Space

Cisco will test router as it circles the earth.

The promise of anytime, anywhere communications via satellite was wildly hyped in the late 1990s, but it fell flat when the reality of pricey infrastructure, brick-heavy devices and poor quality hit home. The dream is still alive, however, and Cisco Systems Inc. wants to give it a boost by showing that standards-based, off-the-shelf minirouters will work in space.

The San Jose, Calif., network company propelled itself into the space business Sept. 27 with the launch of a Cisco 3251 MAR (Mobile Access Router) into low Earth orbit from Plesetsk, Russia. The router rode on board a satellite that is part of an international disaster-monitoring constellation, but it is not directly involved in the DMC mission. Instead, over the next three and a half years, Cisco and its partners, including NASA, will test the routers ability to deliver standards-based IP communications.

The goal is to establish software standards for a shared environment in space so that application development and deployment is less costly than it is today with custom-made hardware and unique interfaces and protocols. Cisco and NASA are working together by way of a Space Act agreement.

"With this router, we are taking the Internet itself and extending it into space," said Phil Paulsen, a project manager at the NASA Glenn Research Center, in Cleveland. "This is a case where the use of infrastructure is going to revolutionize how we do things. If I have a common interface that everybody knows about, introducing a new element is like plugging in my network printer."

On Earth, Ciscos 3251 MAR supports IP connectivity over multiple wireless systems, including 802.11b and cellular networks. The U.S. Coast Guard and the Seal Beach, Calif., police department have used the router.

Unlike earlier visions of omnipresent, space-based consumer communications systems such as those developed by Iridium Satellite LLC or Globalstar Corp., this vision begins with government and military applications. In space, routers could be used to tie the militarys myriad networks together and the governments research networks together so that personnel on land, in the air or at sea can communicate directly, Paulsen said.

"What we propose is that in the future if you have IP-compliant devices in space, you can reach out and touch these items directly," Paulsen said, adding that as a civil servant he does not endorse any given vendors products.

Satellite communications today is based largely on what is known as a "bent-pipe" architecture, in which the satellite acts as a transponder, receiving data and then rebeaming the same data to another point on the ground. There have been experiments with IP-like routing in space, including one last year by Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd., the Guildford, England, company that leads the international DMC project, but this will be the first time that a fully IP-compliant, off-the-shelf router will be tested.

NASA will also test an application built by General Dynamics Corp. that takes advantage of the IP router on board the satellite, Paulsen said. The Virtual Mission Operations application replaces functions on spacecraft traditionally conducted by human operators to create a controlled environment.

Researchers also hope to determine what modifications need to be made to a terrestrial router so that it operates optimally in space. Before the launch, Cisco made a few alterations to protect the device from the intense temperatures and vibration of the launch and from the space environment, such as replacing some plastic connectors with wiring, Paulsen said.

Once costs are lower than those of traditional satellite-based services, Cisco envisions a market for private-sector enterprise and consumer applications, said Rick Sanford, director of space initiatives in the Global Defense and Space Group at Cisco, adding that earlier systems were before their time.

"Were looking at this as an investment to get Cisco in the space industry," Sanford said. "Routers in space really form the next generation of architecture."