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NASA and the European Space Agency have controlled a LEGO robot on Earth from the International Space Station using an experimental “interplanetary internet” system, reports The Verge. NASA’s Disruption Tolerant Networking (DTN) is part of the agency’s Space Communication and Navigation (SCaN) program which coordinates multiple space communications networks.

The Interplanetary Internet must be robust to withstand delays, disruptions and disconnections in space. Glitches can happen when a spacecraft moves behind a planet, or when solar storms and long communication delays occur.

Engineers use NASA’s Epoxi spacecraft as a Mars data-relay orbiter. Epoxi is on a mission to encounter Comet Hartley 2 in two years.

There are 10 nodes on this early interplanetary network. One is the Epoxi spacecraft, but the other nine are on the ground at JPL. They simulate Mars landers, orbiters and ground mission-operations centers.

The delay in sending or receiving data from Mars takes between three-and-a-half to 20 minutes at the speed of light.

The Consultative Committee for Space Data Systems is a body composed of the major space agencies of the world, has developed standardized space link protocols. More than 500 space missions have flown with CCSDS-developed standards, and the number continues to grow.

The Mars Rover only needs to be able to communicate with the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and the Mars Odyssey using CCSDS because it is a short distance away, in Mars orbit.

If Mars Curiousity rover can see the orbiter and the orbiter can see the Earth, then real-time operations are possible. If the orbiter cannot see either, then the communications systems employ a “store-and-forward” mode of communications whereby the spacecraft data streams are buffered in the orbiter’s memory until a direct link to the Earth or the Martian surface can be established.

“Some of the composite panoramas that the rover has sent to Earth comprise a few hundred megabits of data,” says Chad Edward, the chief telecommunications engineer for NASA’s Mars Exploration Program. “Curiosity would take weeks to send that much data. Using the relays, we can have it in a day.”

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