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Space Science Technology

The Tech Aboard the International Space Station 183

Posted by kdawson
from the networking-in-circles dept.
CNETNate writes "With its own file server for uploaded Hollywood blockbusters, a 10Mbps Internet connection to Earth, and around a hundred IBM ThinkPad notebooks, the consumer technology aboard the $150 billion International Space Station is impressive. It's the responsibility of just two guys to maintain the uptime of the Space Station's IT, and they have given CNET an in-depth interview to explain what tech's aboard, how it works, and whether Windows viruses are a threat to the astronauts. In a related feature, the Space Station's internal network (which operates over bandwidth of just 1Mbps) and its connected array of Lenovo notebooks is explained, along with the tech we could see in the future."
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The Tech Aboard the International Space Station

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  • by JoshuaZ (1134087) on Tuesday November 03, 2009 @02:50PM (#29966548) Homepage
    In the very long run, after we colonize Mars and possibly the Moon, latency issues will become even more severe. It will be interesting to see whether we will simply give them separate networks or have those networks as part of the internet. If the second occurs, we may need new protocols to deal with the large latency and related issues.
    • by Brian Gordon (987471) on Tuesday November 03, 2009 @02:53PM (#29966584)

      Obviously just "separate" networks bridged by a few high-speed high-latency links. Exactly like how continents are done now.

    • by 2.7182 (819680) on Tuesday November 03, 2009 @02:54PM (#29966606)
      Colonize? I think you mean conquer, and enslave the troglodites populations to mine dilithium for our fast than light ships. Hopefully we'll be able to genetically modify navigators for them. Or find some handsome young captains to fly around and defeat gods.
    • by DarkFencer (260473) on Tuesday November 03, 2009 @03:09PM (#29966752)

      In the very long run, after we colonize Mars and possibly the Moon, latency issues will become even more severe. It will be interesting to see whether we will simply give them separate networks or have those networks as part of the internet. If the second occurs, we may need new protocols to deal with the large latency and related issues.

      We already have networks with latency comparable to round trip Earth/Mars connections. Its called Time Warner Cable.

    • by jank1887 (815982)

      hmmmm... so, what would the 'cost' of spam sent to mars be? and how easy would it be to DoS that single, high latency link?

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by nicc777 (614519)
        I suppose they will have some kind of near earth orbit satellite that act as a gateway and it will have firewalls, IDS etc. to offer some protection for the obvious attacks. So the network traffic from this point onward to mars (and beyond) should be largely legit. Then again - I DoS myself sometimes with "legit" traffic in some crazy experiment :-)
    • Got UUCP? (Score:5, Informative)

      by winkydink (650484) * <sv.dude@gmail.com> on Tuesday November 03, 2009 @03:36PM (#29967016) Homepage Journal

      Once upon a time, large portions of the internet were "store and forward."

    • by srussia (884021)

      In the very long run, after we colonize Mars and possibly the Moon, latency issues will become even more severe. It will be interesting to see whether we will simply give them separate networks or have those networks as part of the internet. If the second occurs, we may need new protocols to deal with the large latency and related issues.

      Quantum entanglement, baby!

      • by Tynin (634655)
        My understanding of our tests of entangled pairs have shown that they propagate at the speed of light. You'd still have the ~3 to ~20 min delay in communications with Mars.
    • This is why we need Wormhole tech, even a Wormhole a few microns wide that connects between earth and mars would be able to transmit Trillions of bytes per second if utilized properly....

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by nizo (81281) *

        Using it to transport water, food, and air quickly and cheaply would be nice too.

    • by TrippTDF (513419)
      We could do something like send a data center pre-loaded with, say, Wikipedia and the content of lots of popular sites pre-loaded, and then when it's possible, that massive server could get the latest news from Earth... not unlike how my iPhone updates with the latest news from the New York Times... it's just that we're sending a lot of static content that won't need to be changed very frequently.
    • In the very long run, after we colonize Mars and possibly the Moon, latency issues will become even more severe. It will be interesting to see whether we will simply give them separate networks or have those networks as part of the internet. If the second occurs, we may need new protocols to deal with the large latency and related issues.

      Er, Wow. You're worried about network latency and we haven't even put the first human-inhabitable structure on our moon yet. Cripes man, perhaps you should step back just a few parsecs and realize we might just need stuff like an oxygen-rich environment first, for when you want to hyperventilate whilst flogging your Captains Log to Martian Porn some 250,000 miles away...

    • Or they could use teleportation [bbc.co.uk]. By the time we are able to colonize Mars, I'm presuming we will have this technology under better control.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Matrix14 (135171)

      I saw a very interesting talk by Vint Cerf [wikipedia.org] a while back. Apparently he is working with NASA to write the protocols that will be used for the interplanetary Internet.

  • One server? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by skgrey (1412883)
    "One of the T61ps is a server, making it a client/server network with a couple of routers and an Ethernet backbone.."

    You're telling me that with over a hundred machines up there that they have a single point of failure for their domain architecture? And it's a laptop? Hey NASA, ever hear of high-availability?

    Granted they probably don't use that many domain resources, but you'd think if they were going to use any specific kind of tech that they would make sure it was redundant. You'd think with how muc
    • Re:One server? (Score:4, Interesting)

      by RotateLeftByte (797477) on Tuesday November 03, 2009 @02:59PM (#29966662)

      They'll probably just dosconnect the failed one and plug in another one. Remember the costs per kilo of getting payload into orbit. IMHO, using only laptops makes common sense.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      the better question is why they have a hundred laptops for a crew of 3-6 max.

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by FlyingBishop (1293238)

        The article doesn't really talk about the evolution of the network over the life of the station. I'd suspect they have all those laptops for the hard disks, since I imagine they're doing a variety of possibly data-intensive experiments up there that can't deal with the latency getting to a hard drive on the ground and back.

        Obviously, they could use external hard drives, but probably couldn't justify a standalone disk without a fully functional PC.

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by swanzilla (1458281)

        the better question is why they have a hundred laptops for a crew of 3-6 max.

        One Tang spill could render several laptops useless. Perhaps this is a redundancy measure.

        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          by sayno2quat (1651749)
          Except it would 'spill' into a sphere, floating slowly toward the laptop. But you're right in that it would still ruin the computer.
      • Re:One server? (Score:4, Insightful)

        by Korin43 (881732) on Tuesday November 03, 2009 @03:47PM (#29967140) Homepage
        Maybe a combination or redundancy and price/power ratio? When you're sending something in to space the weight is more important the price, so it may cost them similar amounts to send up 100 laptops vs 1 huge server, but it's also a lot harder to break 100 laptops and much easier to "fix" a laptop if you have 100 spares (leave the old one in a pile and replace it when you land). One factor might be that laptops are already designed to be light, while weight isn't really a factor for most servers (so they'd have to design their own). Laptops are also designed to deal with bumps, so they may survive re-entry better.
      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward

        the better question is why they have a hundred laptops for a crew of 3-6 max.

        3-6 crew maybe, but hundreds of experiments. I think just about every one of the experiment racks has a laptop controlling it these days.

      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by toopok4k3 (809683)

        Take a look at this [wikipedia.org] video. The Thinkpads are scattered across the whole space station. And as you can see they are pretty much mounted on racks doing something specific.

        By the way, am I the only one thinking the ISS seems to be pretty huge?

  • The max ground distance for unamplified WiFi is about 200km. The ISS orbits between 340 and 350km, therefore I say we all point our collective WiFi antennae up and try and see the first person to connect up to their network. Of course, you'd only have about 90 minutes of access as I recall; the ISS orbits too fast for much more access time.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by sakdoctor (1087155)

      Imagine a Beowulf satellite constellation of those.

    • by vlm (69642)

      Of course, you'd only have about 90 minutes of access as I recall; the ISS orbits too fast for much more access time.

      The orbit is about 91 minutes long.. An ideal ground track is only a couple minutes... talk to the ham radio folks whom use a couple watts to a voice FM signal on an external antenna. The wifi is much faster (needs higher SNR) and has an inside antenna and have a zilionth of a watt, so unlikely.

    • by jeffmeden (135043) on Tuesday November 03, 2009 @03:38PM (#29967044) Homepage Journal

      OK you get two points for +1crazy. Point 1; the ISS completes an ENTIRE orbit in 90 minutes. That means that if you had an antenna pointed straight up, and say you used a moderate gain antenna with a 5 degree beam, you will get just over ONE minute of access before you need to adjust the antenna. You would need a pretty sophisticated ground tracking mechanism to have any hope of keeping the connection alive for more than a minute.

      On to 2. WiFi uses an ack timeout in the microsecond range. This means that for a typically configured transceiver, you are racing the speed of light with that timeout window. The practical limit happens to be around 20 miles, or 32 kilometers. Not quite enough to get you to the ISS.

      Good luck, though!

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by cababunga (1195153)

        Point 1; the ISS completes an ENTIRE orbit in 90 minutes. That means that if you had an antenna pointed straight up, and say you used a moderate gain antenna with a 5 degree beam, you will get just over ONE minute of access before you need to adjust the antenna. You would need a pretty sophisticated ground tracking mechanism to have any hope of keeping the connection alive for more than a minute.

        That would be true if you looked at the orbit from the center of the Earth. From the surface your time window would be in the order of 10 seconds.

    • The ISS is usually only visible for a few minutes, between 5 and 10 if you are lucky. But for anyone interested in trying: http://www.heavens-above.com/ [heavens-above.com] Don't forget to give it your location.
    • ... I say we all point our collective WiFi antennae up and try and see the first person to connect up to their network. Of course, you'd only have about 90 minutes of access as I recall; the ISS orbits too fast for much more access time.

      It makes one orbit every 90 minutes, so the visibility from a ground station is a lot less than that!

      Maybe you meant 90 seconds? that's more like right.

    • by Talisman (39902) on Tuesday November 03, 2009 @03:13PM (#29966796) Homepage

      Nah, wouldn't be so bad.

      ISS orbits at between 278 km (173 mi) and 460 km (286 mi) from Earth.

      LEO (Low Earth Orbit) satellites orbit at about 400 km, and Geostationary sats orbit at 35,786 km over the equator.

      I'm connected to a GEO sat right now (I'm in the Gulf of Aden atm), and ping time is just under 800ms. Not great, admittedly, but really not bad.

      I imagine NASA keeps their pipe pretty full 24/7 and that might generate some lag, but at their altitude, they are probably getting 300ms ping times or better. It also depends on where your data goes once it hits the Earth station. We had a horrible bottleneck at Eik, Norway so we routed the data through Mirimar, Florida and it lopped off about 600ms from our ping time.

      I'm guessing NASA has a pretty sweet peering arrangement ;)

      • by mcgrew (92797) *

        Well, Im sure it's better than I used to get playing Quake over a 56k modem.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by LWATCDR (28044)

        Actually I am sure that the ISS is using TDRS or it's replacment for their link. I would bet that the ISS has at least one geosynchronous bounce at all times.

      • by Kjella (173770)

        LEO (Low Earth Orbit) satellites orbit at about 400 km, and Geostationary sats orbit at 35,786 km over the equator.

        I'm connected to a GEO sat right now (I'm in the Gulf of Aden atm), and ping time is just under 800ms. Not great, admittedly, but really not bad.

        I imagine NASA keeps their pipe pretty full 24/7 and that might generate some lag, but at their altitude, they are probably getting 300ms ping times or better.

        If they're also using EM like radio and not bongo drums, the speed is exactly c. So assuming all other things alike, they'll have 118ms less lag than you, thus more like 650ms than 300ms.

  • Hmm (Score:5, Funny)

    by Jeek Elemental (976426) on Tuesday November 03, 2009 @03:00PM (#29966674)

    "Crew members aboard the ISS can request specific films and TV shows to be uploaded to a central file server, which they can then watch on any of the Station's laptops."

    Space pirates!!

  • > With its own file server for uploaded Hollywood blockbusters...

    Is that a mission requirement? If they upload a foreign film or "Ishtar" will the entire file system crash? Will they get in trouble if they watch "Dark Star"?

    • by khallow (566160)
      If they upload "The Star Wars Holiday Special", LEO will be contaminated for decades.
  • It's very sad (Score:4, Insightful)

    by DerekLyons (302214) <`fairwater' `at' `gmail.com'> on Tuesday November 03, 2009 @03:00PM (#29966680) Homepage

    It's very sad, with the real high tech shit aboard the ISS, that consumer grade electronics are featured as 'the tech of ISS'.

    • by blueg3 (192743)

      That's Slashdot for you. The CNet article is titled "Interview: The Space Station's IT guys".

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Shane112358 (1532293)
      As someone who works in space flight hardware, I will state what I think is obvious to most slashdotters: These are not just "consumer grade electronics." True, they were based heavily or solely on an existing consumer product, but they have to meet a very stringent set of requirements to operate in space. *They need to cool themselves effectively despite having no gravity, which means heat doesn't rise and you lose all naturally convective heating *They need to be radiation hardened to mitigate against b
      • Re:It's very sad (Score:4, Informative)

        by The Yuckinator (898499) on Tuesday November 03, 2009 @04:00PM (#29967324)

        FTFA:

        "You'd be surprised at how many computers would survive on the ISS. I can't think of an occurrence when we've have a computer fail from the radiation itself. It may reduce the lifetime of how long we can keep the equipment in orbit, but most of the time the failures are just like the ones here on the ground -- we'll have a hard-drive failure or we'll have an application problem and end up reloading the machine."

      • So... Thinkpads aren't consumer grade hardware? Sure, I love mine, but calling 'em space-grade isn't exactly being honest, IMO ;)

      • by sunking2 (521698)

        None of these machines are radiation hardened in any way. For the most part they are indeed off the shelf with the exception of adding some extra cooling fans to accommodate the lower pressure that the station maintains during EVAs, along with a DC-DC adapter to match the stations 28V power. When you consider a 40mz RAD6000 PPC goes for about $300k just for the cpu the cost of specialty hardening a laptop would be way too cost prohibitive. None of these run or control critical systems so it's not a big deal

        • by nizo (81281) *

          Plus if there is a problem with radiation inside the ISS, I'm guessing there are worse problems than a dead Thinkpad (yeah, the people aren't radiation hardened either).

        • For the most part they are indeed off the shelf with the exception of adding some extra cooling fans to accommodate the lower pressure that the station maintains during EVAs

          The station doesn't change pressure during EVAs - you're confusing it with the Shuttle. The station has the two airlock modules (one each Russian and American) specifically so that EVA astronauts can 'camp out' in them and get used to a different pressure and atmosphere mix without having to expose the experiments and other crew to thos

          • by sunking2 (521698)
            Of which a functioning laptop may want to be used inside of. That's the neat thing about laptops, you can take them where you go. That being said I worded poorly, although I do believe in the initial days of assembly the entire station may have reduced pressure.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by DerekLyons (302214)

        As someone who works in space flight hardware, I will state what I think is obvious to most slashdotters:

        First, "works with space flight hardware" != "works with the ISS's COTS based network". Second, what is 'obvious to everyone' is frequently wrong.

        These are not just "consumer grade electronics." True, they were based heavily or solely on an existing consumer product, but they have to meet a very stringent set of requirements to operate in space.

        First off, don't be coming here and making false cl

    • by timeOday (582209)

      It's very sad, with the real high tech shit aboard the ISS, that consumer grade electronics are featured as 'the tech of ISS'.

      Glass half full - isn't it cool we can buy the best processors ever made with hundreds of millions of transistors rolling off multi-billion-dollar production lines, all for a couple hundred bucks?

    • by nizo (81281) *

      Don't forget that the ISS is manned by consumer grade people too. Granted they have quite a bit of training...

  • by Keruo (771880)
    Do they run linux?
  • by rhsanborn (773855) on Tuesday November 03, 2009 @03:05PM (#29966726)

    housing 68 IBM ThinkPad A31 laptops from 2002, each boasting a 1.8GHz Pentium 4 processor, 512MB RAM and a 40GB hard drive.

    It turns out these double as the main heat supply for the ISS as well.

  • There have been several instances when viruses have found their way on to the ISS [cnet.co.uk]. How do you try to prevent this?

    "Every week we uplink new virus definitions. We uplink and deploy them straight away, so we're running pretty much as up-to-date as we can get. If there ever was a virus, we can pop that computer off the network, isolate it and figure out what the problem is. Even if it needs a complete re-wipe, it's pretty easy to quarantine. But the way our IT is set up, there's a network on board, there's
    • Just in case?

      Military networks are isolated and still use Anti-Virus, and they have still had some publicized infections.

    • by LWATCDR (28044)

      Sounds like a job for Linux or Solaris..
      I wonder how many visual basic applications are being run on the ISS. No I am not trolling. A lot of experimental control systems are written in VB because it is so easy to throw together an application.

      • I suspect precisely none. The ISS is about the last place you want a 'thrown together' control app.

        • by LWATCDR (28044)

          I bet you would be shocked. I am not talking about life support or navigation but just the code monitors the experiments.

          • I'm talking about the code that monitors the experiments too. Years or decades of preparation, millions of dollars spent, operated by someone who didn't design or build it... And you think the experimenter would leave a 'thrown together' VB app in place?

  • by tlambert (566799) on Tuesday November 03, 2009 @03:37PM (#29967018)

    "mankind's first permanent space colony"

    Someone needs to tell Mark Harris that the ISS is scheduled to be deorbited 1Q 2016 before he moves in to his condo there.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Space_Station [wikipedia.org]

    -- Terry

    • With him being such an intelligent being, I recommend we tell him, after he moved to his condo there! ^^

    • by SashaMan (263632)

      This weekend I moved, and I always have a hard time throwing out old stuff. You know, an old palm pilot I haven't used in years, CRT monitors, close I don't wear anymore (or never really wore much in the first place), etc. I just feel guilty dumping stuff when there's nothing really wrong with it.

      Then I though about how we spent tens of billions on the space station, only to throw it away a couple of years after it was finished, so subsequently I felt fine about throwing 3/4 of my closet in the dumpster.

  • Unaddressed question (Score:4, Interesting)

    by damn_registrars (1103043) <damn.registrars@gmail.com> on Tuesday November 03, 2009 @03:50PM (#29967176) Homepage Journal
    What happens to these laptops when they are decommissioned? They mentioned these thinkpads are from 2002 (which makes them the same vintage as the ones I use for myself at home); will they be sold off when they are replaced? I would love for my next laptop to be one that spent several years in orbit!
    • by NevarMore (248971)

      I've got one.

      It didn't exactly reach orbit, nor was it on the ISS, but it did have a big pile of explosives strapped to it and pointed at the sky.

      There are also some, uhh, g-force and thermally induced stress fractures.

    • by BitZtream (692029)

      Ope they have ECC ram to deal with cosmic rays :/

    • Return vehicles are used for astronauts and important stuff. Not to fill up Ebay. My guess is they wil end up as waste in a supply vessel (like the EU Jules Verne) and burn on re-entry.
      • by khallow (566160)

        Return vehicles are used for astronauts and important stuff. Not to fill up Ebay.

        How many dollars per kg is this "important stuff"? My view is that you probably can get several thousand dollars per kilogram for a used laptop. I doubt there's much up there with that sort of value, including the science experiments.

    • by dissy (172727)

      will they be sold off when they are replaced? I would love for my next laptop to be one that spent several years in orbit!

      Not to dash your dreams of owning one of their laptops, but can you imagine the killing those could make at an auction?
      (Normally I would say on eBay.. but screw eBay)

      I'm sure there are people out there that would value the fact they have been in space for so long, and/or are ISS left overs, that they could fetch a nice price on that alone.
      This would be true for most any hardware they bring back come to think of it.

      It would be funny to see what percentage of their next mission was funded from auctioning off

  • by kimvette (919543) on Tuesday November 03, 2009 @03:55PM (#29967254) Homepage Journal

    Hey, I have an idea! Maybe thepiratebay.org could relocate their servers to be colocated on the ISS. I think the upper stratosphere is out of the Swedish court's jurisdiction! ;)

  • This article is not about all the tech... just the IT stuff.

  • by slashbart (316113) on Tuesday November 03, 2009 @04:34PM (#29967748) Homepage
    Our scientific equipment "Declic" was sent to the ISS last august. It runs Linux and uC-OS II on a whole pile of microprocessors. The Linux of the part of the system that we built was completely custom built based on "linux from scratch". For an interesting read: Linux Journal [linuxjournal.com]
    The 2.6 kernel was state of the art when we built it, but we needed its lower latency features.
  • by argent (18001) <peter@slashdot.2 ... m ['nga' in gap]> on Tuesday November 03, 2009 @04:55PM (#29968026) Homepage Journal

    "One thing that really impacts the crew's day-to-day operations is if the file server itself fails. This forces them to reload the hard drive and re-establish all the network drives and all the apps. They actually have to get out the media and load the image to the hard drive. That's a significant hit for the crew because we can't do everything for them from the ground.

    Jesus Christ, given the cost per minute keeping those guys up there, I'd think they'd at the very least have redundant servers with redundant media.

  • DMCA violation (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward

    I know someone else has pointed to this, but I think it bears repeating:

    article quote: "If the crew wants specific movies, music or TV shows, we can uplink them to the server and they can then access them from any computer."

    If these movies are coming from a DVD format, then DMCA violations are certainly occuring at NASA.

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