NASA Taps Coders to Develop Protocols for Deep Space Communication

By tapping TopCoder, a community of developers and designers, NASA has been able to find solutions for deep space communication that support space exploration. One of its recent successes has been the Disruption Tolerant Networking (DTN) project to improve computer network architecture for deep space networks, according to TopCoder.

NASA and the Harvard-NASA Tournament Lab in 2013 teamed with TopCoder to launch the Disruption Tolerant Challenge Series. The challenges develop technological concepts for deep space networks.
NASA’s DTN protocols help aid NASA in the exploration of the solar system by improving communication time.

To explore the solar system, NASA must overcome communication time delays created by distances between planets, planet rotation, orbits of transmission power limits. NASA needed help building protocols to allow the DTN to work.

The challenge of deep space communications.

The challenge is supported by the NASA Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation. The series includes several projects: neighbor discovery, DTN dashboard, astronaut email, security key, LTP challenge and DTPC challenge.

DTN Networks’ Connectivity Challenge

DTN networks can lack continuous connectivity. Networks that operate in mobile or extreme terrestrial environments or planned networks in space fall into this category. Connectivity can be disrupted due to the limits of wireless radio range or the lack of mobile nodes, energy resources, noise and attack.

In order to support the transfer of astronaut email to and from the International Space Station (ISS), NASA has to integrate the ION DTN implementation of Bundle Protocol (BP) with Microsoft Outlook and the Microsoft Exchange server. To send and receive email from ISS, astronauts use Microsoft Outlook on the ISS which connect to a Microsoft Exchange server on the ground. The system operates over TCP/IP, but the links are delayed and often disrupted. This is due to ISS structural blockage as well as data relay satellite system (TDRSS) handovers and tracking.

Delays and disruptions often make Microsoft Outlook unusable, especially when emailing large attachments like videos and pictures.

Project Draws 146 Registrants

The ION DTN implementation of BP with Outlook and Exchange server project launched in April 2014 and completed in June 2015. The project used 12 challenges and drew 146 registrants from 42 countries. The goal was to integrate the ION DTN implementation of the BP with the Outlook and Exchange server to support astronaut email transfer to and from ISS.

Another DTN project was to build a network monitoring and management dashboard for non-technical users. The configuration of the DTN network needs to be easy to use and intuitive. This project launched in April 2015 and completed July 2015. It consisted of three challenges and drew 128 registrants from 14 countries. The project designed a UI that allowed the monitoring and managing of remote nodes in a DTN, along with visualizations of current, actual and historical network link status.

Another project was to update DTN ION so it includes IP Neighbor Discovery (IPND), a method for nodes to learn the availability and addresses of other DTN participants. This project launched February 2015 and completed July 2015. It included 10 challenges and drew 268 registrants from eight countries.

The NASA DTN Challenge Series is one of several TopCoder/NASA collaborations. The NASA National Tournament Lab was established in 2011 as a result of a 2009 TopCoder challenge, according to That challenge developed algorithms for medical kits for human space missions.

Also read: NASA’s potential for alien life, Kepler-452B: Earth 2.0?

TopCoder: Open Innovation Platform

TopCoder is the largest digital open innovation platform. Its members create digital assets such as analytics, software and creative designs using a competitive, standards-based methodology.

Participants can select any of the contests and view individual contest requirements. Specialists within the community compete in a series of competitions that comprise the whole project.

TopCoder awards more than $25,000 per day; every day brings a new hackathon. To date, $73,402,524 has been awarded.

TopCoder has hosted technical competitions since 2001 and is considered one of the top online technical communities.

Within three tracks – design, development and data science – competitors address real-world challenges for customers. Complex systems are divided into different contests allowing topcoders to work on areas such as design, prototyping, architecture solutions, algorithms and developing code.

TopCoder participants compete for prizes, but the process also develops collaboration and a sense of community.

Images from Shutterstock and TopCoder.

Lester Coleman is a veteran business journalist based in the United States. He has covered the payments industry for several years and is available for writing assignments.