From a technical point of view, routers are the hardware that make the Internet the network of networks. Routers do the job by receiving and retransmitting the trillions of packets of Internet data, sending each towards its own destination with the route chosen by the router (if it’s smart enough). So, if space is to be included in the Internet, routers are needed in space. Surprisingly, this is just happening.
Most satellite traffic has been a matter of repeating signals to cut transmission time over the curvature of the Earth. Routing the traffic has not been part of the mission. Perhaps it seems like a rather small step, but the inauguration of IRIS (Internet Relay in Space), a joint project of Cisco Systems (USA) and the U.S. Department of Defense, marks the first use of a satellite based router to direct, amplify, and optimize traffic (data, voice, and video) in space. It has some symbolic value, but it’s there because it will improve the working of the Internet – first for military purposes, later for commercial uses.
The satellite (Intelsat IS-14) was launched in November 2009 aboard an Atlas rocket and has been going through initial checks. The first demonstrations, mostly NATO traffic between the U.S. and Afghanistan, are scheduled for the next three months.
Eventually, such Internet router satellite may be part of the ‘backbone’ (essential transmission line) for the Internet, and perhaps one day, part of the Deep Space Network.