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As part of the experiment, NASA deployed a small Lego robot at the European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany, and space station commander Sunita Williams connected to the robot from a Lenovo ThinkPad T61p laptop on board the ISS's Columbus Orbital Laboratory. The simulation was intended to replicate a spacecraft orbiting any other planetary body.
The test used NASA's Disruption Tolerant Networking (DTN) protocol, which the space agency a decade ago jointly developed with TCP/IP co-inventor and Google VP Vint Cerf. The technology can withstand delays and disruptions that might be common in space due to long distances and obstacles like planets and solar storms. Unlike Internet Protocol, which establishes an end-to-end connection before sending data, DTN moves data node-to-node, and can wait for connections to open up before relaying information to further nodes.
NASA is banking on DTN to be one of its primary future space protocols. "The experimental DTN we've tested from the space station may one day be used by humans on a spacecraft in orbit around Mars to operate robots on the surface, or from Earth using orbiting satellites as relay stations," NASA deputy associate administrator for space communications Badri Younes said in a statement.
[ Learn the latest on NASA's Mars mission. See Curiosity Rover Maps More Of Mars. ]
The robot experiment is part of a series of tests with Disruption Tolerant Networking that have been carried out by NASA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and now the European Space Agency. These tests began in October 2008 with transmission of dozens of images across 20 million miles from NASA's Epoxi spacecraft, the primary mission for which was to perform a close flyby of comet Hartley 2.
This particular DTN experiment "will establish the initial communications network for follow-on telerobotics studies," NASA said in a recent statement. In a planned future study, an astronaut will wear an exoskeleton on the ISS, and DTN will be used to relay signals from the exoskeleton to a robot on Earth that will mimic the astronaut's movements.
DTN is part of NASA's broader Space Communications and Navigation effort to improve communication in space. Space Communications and Navigation's Canberra Deep Space Communications Complex, for example, provides communications links to and from the Mars Curiosity rover and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. NASA has indicated that improving space communications is one of the agency's key goals.