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The sensors already are being made by a spinoff company of the lab called Tactus Technologies of Buffalo, N.Y. But Internet technology still must be improved to get a more exact sensation across. Right now, limitations in bandwidth and time lapses cause some data to be lost. The next version of the Internet, Kesavadas says, will be improved to let users feel the softness of fabrics or skin. Adding visual data also helps with the overall sensation of touch.Skip to next paragraph
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This technology is exciting to Adriane Hooke, a lead scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. He is heading the effort to develop networking standards to eventually build an interplanetary Internet that could connect robots, satellites, and all kinds of equipment put into space. His work is part of several space networking projects at NASA, under the umbrella Deep Space Network, a grouping of large antennas in the United States, Spain, and Australia now in place that communicates with spacecraft and conducts scientific investigations.
Dr. Hooke says the concept of "telepresence" will be the "killer application" for the Internet over the next 15 years. "You can have data sent back from a robotic sensor in space and recreate the information in a virtual reality-like environment on Earth, so you could feel like you were roaming around on Mars," he says. For example, a Mars land rover with sensors could relay the feeling of a rock or the planet's surface back to a person on Earth, who in turn could have a virtual-reality experience of being on the surface of Mars. It could even be used in a Cineplex-type environment, where a person pays $6 to be in the virtual environment of Mars, Hooke adds.
The challenges for Internet designers and programmers, such as the lapse in time to send data from one location to another, deepen in space. Data transmission, which often seems instantaneous on Earth, takes about one-eighth of a second to reach the moon, and other planets are minutes or hours away, leaving a greater chance for data transmission errors, says William Weber, head of the Deep Space Network and the Interplanetary Network Directorate. In addition, communication with Earth can take place only at certain times when the Deep Space Network antennas can pick up the signals in the three locations as the planets and other objects pass by in orbit.
"In space, you can't get continuous connectivity like you can with the Internet on Earth," Hooke says. So he and his colleagues are researching a store and forward-type of network whereby data collected 24 hours a day by space robots, for example, could be sent to a satellite continuously, and then stored and downloaded when the Earth antennas are in the right position.
The most recent space launch contained two robotic landers for Mars, which is the major initial target for collecting space data. So far, the robots on Mars all communicate back to Earth independently, but in the next decade, they could be networked to each other as well, Hooke says.
He foresees a day when there might be Internet addresses such as Mars.com. "In 50 to 100 years," Hooke says, "our goal is to make any place in the solar system Internet accessible."