Networking in Space: Or The Longest Ethernet Cord Ever

Today in space technology Honeywell announced the specifications of the networking equipment to be used in the Orion project.

For those of you that do not know what the Orion Project is all about let me explain. In the 60s and through to the mid 70s the US had a tremendous push to get a man on the moon before the then Soviet Union. To do this the National Aeronautics and Space Administration came up with a very daring and creative plan.  They were going to launch a vehicle into space that was capable of going to the moon, landing and then returning under its own power this was the Nova Project. This was what Dr. Wernher Von Braun believed anyway. It was a young engineer named Tom Dolan that looked over all of the data and concluded that it was impractical to try a direct ascent. He came up with an idea for the use of two space craft one to make the journey to the moon and one to land on the moon.  This was called Lunar Orbit Rendezvous [LOR] became the principal that would be used to send the first person to the moon and the Apollo program was born.

So what does this have to do with Orion? Well the new project is not based on the LOR concept but is closer to a third idea that was hatched back in the infancy of Apollo. This is the Earth Orbit Rendezvous [EOR] the way Orion will work is through the use of two separate launch vehicles. One will send the crew and Orion space craft into orbit while the second will carry the cargo. The two vehicles will meet up in high earth orbit and rendezvous, from there the boosters on the Orion and Cargo module [which will carry extra fuel for many missions] will send the two space craft on their way.  Once onsite at the moon; Orion will release a Lander capable of staying up to four weeks on the moon before returning and using LOR to return the crew and craft to Earth.

Orion is going to be built with some of the most state of the art communications and control features that are out. These include a COTS PowerPC 750 FX Processor running the Green Hills Integrity DO-178 real-time operating system [RTOS].  This same combination is used in the Boeing 787 flight-controls and seems to be a great fit for Orion. Further technology under the hood will include time-triggered Gigabit LAN, IPv4 external communications, fault tolerance, dissimilar backup, and auto navigation, docking and rendezvous. The need for automated systems to cover the tricky docking and rendezvous is great however as with in the early Gemini Program it has been shown that the US Astronaut core is more than up to the task if those automated systems fail. As such there were still be the options for manual override in the event of system failure.

Ray Crum, Orion program technical director, stated that the system will be designed to allow for modular upgrades and has an expected lifespan of 20-years.

I know the question that is coming; if this is the future of space travel for the next 20 years, why use IPv4? The answer is simpler than you think; it is a question of a polished product versus a new technology. IPv6 is new and not in full scale usage or acceptance. As such it is not something you want to place your critical data on. Bear in mind that the Orion is being designed to be upgraded; this is a critical factor in the design of the space craft. NASA wants to be able to quickly and easily swap out hardware. As such when IPv6 is more developed and in wider usage I am sure that Orion will begin using this standard.

Crum also talked about the need to stream HD video from the space craft back to Earth [Can you imagine the bandwidth needed for something like that? ]. The video will be used for public broadcasts and for research into areas to place the first settlements on the moon.

As a child growing up [and living in Florida] during the Apollo program I can remember the excitement and wonder created with each new flight. I hope that the Orion missions back to the moon can recapture that same wonder and excitement again.

We will be covering this and will be trying to get more information to you in the coming months [perhaps a visit to the Kennedy Space Center Launch Complex is in order].