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Cisco in space

Router in orbit puts more wide into WAN.

By Phil Hochmuth, Network World
October 31, 2005 12:06 AM ET

Network World -

If you are a router company with as much as 80% market share and a $3.2 billion R&D budget to play with, why not bolt a router to a rocket and shoot it into orbit?

This is what a group of engineers at Cisco did as part of its Cisco Low Earth Orbit (CLEO) project, which recently completed its second year orbiting Earth. CLEO is a modified version of Cisco's Mobile Access Router, typically used to connect computer equipment in police cars, ambulances, airplanes and other vehicles to an IP network.

Cisco says the project is a proof-of-concept exercise designed to show the aerospace industry that commercial IP technology is space-worthy.

"We needed to . . . put a stake in the ground and have something to talk about from a technology perspective," says Rick Sanford, director of Cisco's Global Space Initiatives group.

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Routers in space hold promise for future satellite-based broadband, which could make wide-area data network services ubiquitous and more robust than current satellite-based data services, Sanford says. The use of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) computing and network technology also is of interest to the government and aerospace industry.

"NASA and the Department of Defense are currently involved in defining the next-generation network architecture for space. This new architecture will utilize Internet Protocols to ensure interoperability between terrestrial (land, sea and air) and satellites," wrote Phillip Paulsen, space Internet technology project manager for NASA's Glenn Research Center, in a report. The center, in Cleveland, has been involved in the development of Internet technologies for space applications since the mid-1990s.

"The current development activities are all cooperative in nature and utilize ... commercial-off-the-shelf network equipment that has been designed to open standards, helping to reduce costs and ensure compatibility with future commercial systems," Paulsen wrote.

CLEO is born

Working with Surrey Satellite Technology, Cisco made CLEO available for launch in 2003 as piggyback cargo on the U.K. Disaster Monitoring Consortium satellite, part of a satellite network used to photograph hurricanes, wildfires and earthquakes from space.

Last year, CLEO was put to its big test, executed by the Air Force, Army and NASA's Glenn Research Center at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. In this test, military personnel sitting in a jeep used a laptop running special General Dynamics software to make IP-based contact with CLEO. From this Virtual Mission Operations Center, laptop operators were able to download images from the satellite and send command-and-control signals to the device over IP. This pure-IP link to a router in space was a first, Sanford says.

Satellite communication signals traditionally have been sent and received using what's known as a bent-pipe method. A signal is sent up from a fixed point on Earth, received by the satellite and amplified, then sent back down to a predetermined point. With all traffic routing decisions made on the ground, the satellite link is basically a Layer 1 connection technology.

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