NASA drives Lego robot from space to test new networking protocol

What do you get when you combine the Internet, a Lego robot and the International Space Station?

A glimpse of how scientists of the future might control the successors to the Curiosity rover.

Late last month, ISS Commander Sunita Williams drove a Lego robot called “Mocup” located at the European Space Operations Center in Darmstadt, Germany while on board the space station. Williams sent commands to the robot via a new networking protocol developed by NASA.

Dubbed Disruption Tolerant Networking, or DTN, the protocol is meant to be the interplanetary equivalent of the Internet. DTN is built around Bundle Protocol, which is analogous to Internet Protocol but is designed to be more robust. It’s built to tolerate disconnections, delays and errors that might occur in sending messages from one planet to another or from an orbiting space craft to a rover on the surface of a planet. As the European Space Agency, which partnered with NASA on the test, put it recently:

Sending commands in this way is not as straightforward as it might seem. Links could be interrupted if not in direct line of sight with Earth or the surface device.

A system had to be devised that would assure correct operation even in less-than-ideal conditions. Scientists devised the Disruptive Tolerance Network as a form of ‘space internet’ to communicate reliably.

The network protocol stores commands if the signal is lost and forwards them once communications are regained.

There was no word from Lego or NASA about whether we’ll soon see a special consumer edition of Mocup.

Troy Wolverton Troy Wolverton (274 Posts)

Troy writes the Tech Files column as the Personal Technology Columnist at the San Jose Mercury News. He also covers the digital media, mobile and video game industries and writes occasionally about Apple, chips, social networking and other aspects of technology. Previously, Troy covered Apple and the consumer electronics industry. Prior to joining the Mercury News, Troy reported on technology, business and financial issues for TheStreet.com and CNET News.com.