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The first satellite to form part of a solar system wide communications network will launch this month, according to Vinton Cerf, the creator of the TCP/IP protocol.

Speaking at the Compsec conference, he outlined his work as a visiting scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory research facility in Pasadena.

One of the problems facing space research is that each mission has to be designed from scratch - including the communications protocols used - so very little recycling is possible either of equipment or ideas.

Back in 1998 Cerf announced the plan at the INET conference, attended by our own Andrew Orlowski. "When you're talking about Pluto, TCP doesn't look too attractive anymore," Cerf acknowledged at INET. At Compsec he reiterated this. "The round trip to Mars for a signal is between ten and 40 minutes, so it was obvious we needed something else."

He proposed a system of relay stations, or "Interplanetary Gateways" to deal with the delay. He said: "We'll need some relays which terminate the IP and send it by some other means: these transmissions will be kind of unique: very high in error rate, and very low in signal to noise ratio."

With the November launch of the first prototype, it looks like the network is beginning to become a reality.

Cerf says that the 2001 Moonlander mission will have communications based on the standard, and predicts that by 2004 there will be six satellites in orbit round Mars. "This means that by the end of the decade we will have a two planet network." ®

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