To Infinity and Beyond: Military to Send Internet to Space

A new collaborative project between the U.S. military and the communications industry promises to give new meaning to the term “satellite communications” by sending an Internet router into space.

The Internet Router in Space (IRIS) project, which is being worked on jointly by the Department of Defense, satellite provider Intelsat General and networking giant Cisco, is designed to test the viability of conducting military communications through an Internet router in space.

“IRIS extends the Internet into space, integrating satellite systems and the ground infrastructure for warfighters, first responders and others who need seamless and instant communications,” said Bill Shernit, president and CEO of Intelsat General. “IRIS will enable U.S. and allied military forces with diverse satellite equipment to seamlessly communicate over the Internet from the most remote regions of the world.”

A Team Effort

SEAKR Engineering will manufacture the space-hardened router — built to withstand radiation and harsh temperature extremes — which will be equipped with commercial IP networking software from Cisco. The router will be placed aboard Intelsat’s IS-14 satellite, manufactured by Space Systems/Loral and planned for launch in the first quarter of 2009. The satellite will be placed in geostationary orbit at 45 degrees west longitude with coverage of Europe, Africa and the Americas.

The result will be a “computer processor in the sky,” Intelsat officials said, merging communications received on various frequency bands and transmitting them to multiple users based on data instructions embedded in the uplink. Voice, video and data communications will all be supported, enabling military units or allied forces to communicate using Internet protocol and existing ground equipment.

Faster and Better

“IRIS could enable U.S. and allied military forces with incompatible communications equipment to seamlessly communicate over the Internet,” Lt. Denver Applehans, a spokesperson for the U.S. Strategic Command, told TechNewsWorld. “The IRIS architecture allows direct IP routing over satellite, eliminating the need for routing via a ground-based teleport, thereby dramatically increasing the efficiency and flexibility of the satellite communications link.”

Because all the routing will be done from the satellite, communications will no longer have to go through the ground architecture, which means that “there will be improvements across the board — throughput, quality of service, latency,” Mike Florio, operational manager for the IRIS project at the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command/U.S. Army Forces Strategic Command, told TechNewsWorld.

In addition, whereas currently the DoD has to pay for its bandwidth in these situations whether it uses it or not, the IP-based IRIS system will allow it to pay only for what it actually uses, he noted.

‘A Step Forward’

“The beauty of this for the government is that we can leverage what the commercial industry is doing and get insight on whether it will be worthwhile for military applications,” Florio added.

“I wouldn’t characterize this as a breakthrough, but it is an interesting development with real benefits,” Jay Pultz, vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner, told TechNewsWorld.

Satellites have typically been built to be simple and redundant, he stated, since their high orbits make them essentially impossible to repair. “This is saying that we’ve reached the point and sophistication where we’re comfortable putting some more smarts on the satellite,” Pultz said. “It’s a nice step forward.”

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