By the end of this decade, a fully functioning two planet Internet will connect Earth and Mars, with a complete interplanetary Internet backbone likely to be in place within the next 20 - 40 years.
Interplanetary Internet is fact not fiction, says Dr Vint Cerf
Science fiction? Certainly not, says Dr Vinton Cerf of Worldcom who, as one of the co-inventors of the TCP/IP protocol, is a founding father of the Internet.
Speaking in Cambridge on Saturday - as a guest of the Internet Society of England, the Cambridge Entrepreneurship Centre and Cambridge Network - he gave remarkable insight into the current state of the Internet and its future application, both on this planet and beyond.
Dr Cerf is working with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California on interplanetary Internet protocols for a new communications backbone, ipn.sol - with earth.sol, mars.sol and so on in the interplanetary region. The development, which introduces new standards for space communication to re-use assets and reduce costs, prepares the way for commercial users of space. Bundle Transport Protocol instead of the earthly Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) will link planets with spacecraft, to terminate at an interplanetary 'gateway'.
The first prototypes were finished in August, said Dr Cerf. In mid-November a Science and Technology Research Vehicle - STRV 1D - will be launched, with the new protocols on board, to be modified over the next two years.
'At the end of 2001, a commercial moon landing is planned, and our intention is to land a robot on the moon with the interplanetary protocols on board. Then, in 2003, a NASA mission to carry two new Rovers (robots) to Mars will also have the protocols on board. The objective is to support the exploration of the solar system, and each new mission will be provided with increasing amounts of communications capability - both on the robots and on spacecraft.
'There will be half a dozen satellites around Mars by the end of the decade and at least a two-planet Internet will be in operation,' he said. 'By 2040, there should be a fully operational interplanetary system.
'Of course I'll be dead by then and won't be around to see it!' he added.
Dr Cerf gave an overview of the many ways in which the technology he developed is affecting all our lives, with the advent of Internet-enabled devices ranging from telephones to refrigerators; sewing machines to cars.
'Today the Internet is used by 300 million people, which represents only 5% of the world's six billion-strong population. We estimate that in 10 years, about three billion people will be on the net - about half the world's population.
'What's exciting about that prospect is it means three billion people can contribute to the network. What we have discovered is that people who get on the Internet are often just as keen to supply information, as they are to retrieve it.
'It's like books and paper. The idea of writing something down which lasts for a while creates an interesting mode of communication because you can communicate with people in the future who you'll never know.
'The Internet replicates that communications capability because it gives us the opportunity to communicate with people we don't know, literally in real time. That in turn creates a community which cannot exist in any other way.'
But significantly increasing global e-commerce - demanding high levels of security and reliability - and the potential problems associated with sheer capacity; trademarks, copyright and the convergence of technologies such as television, radio and telephony, meant that many technical and regulatory challenges still lay ahead.
Dr Cerf's presentation, entitled The 21st Century Internet tidal wave can (of course!) be found on the Internet at http://www.wcom.com/cerfsup
Other useful sites:
http://www.isoc.org/internet (The Internet Society)
http://www.ipnsig.org (Interplanetary Internet special interest group)
http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/ (NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory)