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Internet of space

August 12, 2011

Germany's oldest hacker collective, the Chaos Computer Club are holding an international get-together just outside Berlin for computer nerds and technology enthusiasts. Now, they want to extend the Internet to space.

Thousands of tents
The Chaos Communication Camp attracted thousandsImage: flickr.com/Ophelia Noor

In an old Soviet-era aircraft museum at Finowfurt, a small town just north of Berlin, hackers have gathered this week for the Chaos Communication Camp 2011, hosted by Germany's oldest hackers, the Chaos Computer Club.

From August 10-14, 3,500 attendees lived in thousands of tents next to the grass-covered hangars and in amongst the rusting planes in the fields, they came to indulge all their usual computer urges, and then go a little further.

Amongst a wide range of workshops on technology mods, innovations and encryption techniques, alternatives to Facebook, e-waste and digital rights, a few have brainstormed a new three-phase space program.

Announced on Wednesday, the Hacker Space Program's organizers laid out a three-stage plan: In phase one, hackers want to launch an open, free and globally accessible satellite-based network to defend terrestrial censorship of the Internet. Phase two is to put a hacker into orbit, while phase three of the plan is go one better and put a hacker on the moon by 2034.

Vint Cerf
Vint Cerf has been working on the Interplanetary Internet for yearsImage: HPI/Kay Herschelmann

A sense of purpose

"We think it's not only nice, but also necessary to have some kind of utopia, some kind of common dream to hang on to," said Jens Ohlig, one of the project's leaders, in an interview with Deutsche Welle.

"Many times when the hackers united for a common goal it was more of a reaction to topics like Internet censorship. We wanted to tackle it from a different angle and actually build something."

The group's plans come at a time when nations like the United States are cutting back their space program. With the last shuttle flight earlier this year, NASA is not expected to put another human into space for several years.

But while space programs might be in a hiatus, satellite communication technology is booming, and its applications have become an integral part of modern life - most notably in GPS navigation systems.

Fighting censorship

In fact, phase one of the program could be the most controversial. Nick Farr, an American hacker, another one of Hacker Space Program's organizers, said Internet shutdowns in places like Egypt give this project a new urgency.

"The ability of governments to shutdown the Internet on a whim here on Earth points to the need for us to create a network in space," he noted.

"That would be much, much harder to censor than just turning off switches or telling companies to unplug people or tap people's lines, or violate people's fundamental privacy rights for the purposes of gathering intelligence."

Rocket at the CCcamp
If you have the money, you can send anything to space, hackers sayImage: flickr.com/t.animal

The hacktivist group Telecomix has been making headlines recently for its work in helping the people of Egypt, Libya and Syria to get around government censorship of the Internet. Jonatan Walck and Stephan Urbach from Telecomix are excited about the hacker space program.

"I love the idea," Urbach told Deutsche Welle. "I think that what the hacktivist scene lost in the last few years was the dream of building up visions. Now with the hacker space program we have a new vision."

Interplanetary Internet

NASA has in fact already begun work on an "Interplanetary Internet" - in other words a standard networking protocol that would allow for spacecraft to communicate with space stations and ground stations just as seamlessly as the terrestrial Internet does now.

Vint Cerf, one of the Internet's creators, spoke about this earlier this year at the Hasso Plattner Institute near Berlin.

"The TCP/IP protocols don't work very well across interplanetary distances and the reason for this in part is that the speed of light is too slow," said Cerf at the time. "So my colleagues and I had to invent a whole new set of protocols that we call delay and disruption tolerant networks."

At the Chaos Communication Camp, one American hacker and amateur radio operator, Bernie S., pointed out that the HAM radio community has been building and launching communication satellites for voice and data for several decades.

Although enthusiastic, Bernie is wary of the logistical challenges hackers will face.

He says that hackers would need to launch dozens of satellites in order to provide reliable Internet access for Earth.

"I think the hacker community should really endeavour to pull this off, to try it," he told Deutsche Welle. "But frankly I think the political and commercial challenges may be greater than the technical challenges."

Hackers gathered at the CCcamp
The camp was held at the Finowfurt Air Museum, north of BerlinImage: flickr.com/Ophelia Noor

Elsewhere in the world, there already are some amateur efforts at space travel. Just two months ago, Copenhagen Suborbitals, a Danish group, successfully launched its own amateur, open-source rocket into space.

A new collective

Surprisingly, there aren't really any legal hoops to jump through to launch things into space - it's more a question of having the cash, the organizers say.

At the moment, launching a satellite at the Russian station in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, costs about 20,000 euros ($28,400). But Jens Ohlig says this will get significantly cheaper in the future.

"You need some kind of launchpad and you need someone willing to bring your payload into space," he said. "But surprisingly enough space is remarkably unregulated at the moment. Basically because it's no country on Earth – it's space."

Author: Cinnamon Nippard / bk
Editor: Cyrus Farivar