Technically That Tweet Didn't Come From Space, But Who Cares?

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I have no intentions of taking the wind out of Mike Massimino's sails here - indeed today is a milestone day - but I want to point out that his historic "first tweet from space" didn't actually come from space. Well, kinda sorta.

According to NASA, the tweet originated in orbit aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis, where Massimino and the crew of STS-125 are circling the globe, but was sent via a much older technology, email, to Mission Control in Houston, and then relayed to Twitter. Which, of course, begs the question, if you've got an Internet connection, why not tweet directly? The answer, it seems, is fairly complicated.

Internet access in space is a significantly different animal than here on Earth. The International Space Station has WiFi routers onboard, much like the ones in most businesses and homes. But those routers are typically used for local area wireless connectivity. Internet access - if it can even be called that - is heavily mediated by Mission Control for a variety of security and technical reasons. In other words, the astronauts aboard the ISS can't really pull up a web browser and make Google searches.

But Internet access in space isn't so much a thing of science fiction anymore. In fact, just last year, NASA and Google successfully tested a technology called Disruption-Tolerant Networking, that could very well lead to reliable internet access to the ISS and well beyond. Such a technology could enable rapid data transmission from the Moon, Mars, or well beyond. But DTN differs from the TCP/IP protocol that powers the Internet we know here on Earth. It utilizes a store-and-receive method in order to prevent data loss and ensure accuracy in transmission.

Regardless of where the historic tweet really came from, it is important to recognize the impact rather than the technicalities. I did a little experiment: went to search.twitter.com and did a quick search for "massimino OR astro_mike." Twitter search refreshes roughly once a minute, and in that minute nearly 500 new tweets appeared. Do some quick calculations, and in the 3 hours since he sent his tweet that translates to 3hr * 60min * 500tweets = 90,000 tweets in 3 hours. Incredible.

The future is bright for direct communication from astronauts. We've been seeing live video from space for a long time, and now we're finally seeing astronauts utilizing social media. What next? Only time will tell.

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