March 18, 2013 at 7:55 PM ET
In orbit around our planet, hundreds of satellites constantly relay a huge amount of data back and forth, not to mention streaming it down to the surface. But the aging system is nearly at capacity, so NASA is planning a secure, robust successor.
Don't worry — it's not as if astronauts are having to get by on dial-up during their stay on the International Space Station. In fact, the ISS has a fairly beefy 300-megabit line — more than 10 times faster than what most people can get at home.
Although the current system is suitable for today's needs, it may not be so for tomorrow's. Early this month, NASA posted an official request for information, or RFI, to begin technical discussion of the next generation of space communications. NBC News spoke on the phone with NASA's Philip Liebrecht and James Schier, who work on the space agency's space communications platforms, about the plans for a replacement.
The Tracking Data Relay Satellite system, or TDRSS, is the hub to which many satellites send their data to be relayed to Earth. Not every satellite, after all, can be fitted with the bulky communications equipment necessary to stream a high-bandwidth signal. So they pass their data across space to the TDRSS satellites, which beam all of it down.
The first generation of TDRSS went up in the '80s and early '90s, and was replaced by a new set in the early 2000s. The first piece of the third-generation system was launched just this year, and while it should be fine for the current slate of missions and satellite launches, NASA projects that by the early 2020s it'll be time for another refresh.
NASA can't just send up more of the same. The space station's astronauts enjoy a solid connection today for video conferencing, browsing the Web and exchanging mission data — but the human presence in space is growing — and with it, the need for bandwidth.
"If we end up with space tourists and space hotels," Liebrecht told NBC News, "these people are used to being connected, and these kinds of space relay connections are ideal, especially for vehicles right in orbit, for connecting to their family and friends, Twittering, whatever, all those things."
Today's system will become totally inadequate if, for example, commercial spaceflight becomes popular and affordable in the next 10 to 15 years. It won't be just rich space tourists wanting to tweet from space — the craft themselves and all their support crews will need high-speed Internet to monitor things from the ground. The same goes for new satellites, new space stations and so on.
One thing NASA is looking into is the possibility of communicating using lasers instead of microwaves. This optical data link could send data more quickly and efficiently. It could open up the possibility of having a fast, reliable data connection with the moon (they're testing that this year) — or even Mars and beyond, although Liebrecht and Schier said that wasn't in official plans just yet.
Another technology under investigation is Delay-Tolerant Networking, which make the space networks (and maybe, later, ours here on Earth) far better at dealing with the interval between one end's transmission and the other end's reception. It may only take a few milliseconds for your laptop's signals to reach the wireless router, but if your laptop is in orbit and your router is in Florida, those signals take quite a bit longer to make the trip.
Interoperability is also important. We all share one Internet here on Earth, based on HTTP and TCP/IP, so why not have similar standards in space? To this end, NASA is in constant communication with the Japanese, Russian and European space agencies, as well as research facilities and companies such as SpaceX, to collaborate and make plans for the next 20 years.
Last, it has to be secure. NASA suggests "impervious to breach," but it might have to settle for extremely well-defended — and in the end, it's usually humans who are the weakest link in the chain when it comes to security.
We may not see this technology employed for a decade or more: NASA is only in the initial planning stages, requesting information from others in the sector to help them decide what they want to work on. Next up is deciding what technologies to invest in, with help from interested researchers and vendors. But rest assured that when you finally do make your way into orbit, you should be able to Instagram and Facebook it to your heart's delight — or do whatever it is we do in 2025.
More information on the broader responsibilities, facilities, goals, and plans of the SCaN network, of which TDRS is a part, can be found at NASA's website.
Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. His personal website is coldewey.cc.