The European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA conducted an experiment in late October that used the "interplanetary internet" to drive an earth-bound rover. Astronaut Sunita Williams used a laptop with experimental technology called Disruption-Tolerant Networking (DTN) protocol to control the rover using a network of connection points that more effectively controls data relay.
That's a pretty cool feat on it's own, but it's just a starting point for what could be a way to more easily communicate with astronauts on Mars and beyond.
Successful DTN protocol will be a huge improvement on how we relay information between here and the Mars rovers. For example, currently if there is a problem or interference such as solar storm causing disruption of the data transmission, all the data is lost.
The DTN is basically like the Internet as we know it, but woven into a sophisticated network of nodes that act as data connection points to accommodate delays over the vast distances in space. Data gets stored from node to node and if there is an interruption, they hold the data until communication is back online. The stored data then gets forwarded along.
The idea of an interplanetary Internet isn't new — in fact, the idea of the DTN was proposed over a decade ago by Vint Cerf. The first rudimentary tests occurred in November 2008 with a transmission of images between a spacecraft 20 million miles away.
The DTN system of storing and forwarding challenges our idea of instant communication via the Internet. Kim Nergaard from ESA told the BBC:
"It's all about communicating over large distances, because the 'normal' Internet doesn't expect that it may take minutes before something is sent for it to arrive."
Okay, it may be slower, but it means that someday if your kids send an email or video to their child who has become a Mars colonist at least it will arrive intact. That's a pretty cool future to imagine and of course the technology will only improve.
When the DTN is the not so distant future, it will help us communicate with Mars rovers like Curiosity and other long distance spacecraft more effectively. The current system uses "point-to-point communication" which means either NASA directs operations from Earth or in some cases data relay satellites. That last bit may sound similar to the DTN, but because it isn't a purpose built network of nodes it's still point-to-point.
Mr Nergaard provided more context to the BBC:
"…the idea is that in the future rovers on Mars and spacecraft orbiting it will be treated as a network, so that you can send things to the network just as you send things using the internet on Earth. It will still be via radio waves, but over different frequencies, to allow you higher data rate communication than the ones used today."
NASA reports the successful test has proved the viability of a system like the DTN. Who knows what their next steps are, but this recent test is a very cool display of technology necessary to make manned, long distance space missions a reality.