AT&T will help NASA beef up its Deep Space Network by providing a high-speed VPN to connect giant radio antennas around the world.
"Our technology helps NASA explore the furthest reaches of the known universe," said Mike Leff, an AT&T vice president. "The Deep Space Network is a powerful system for commanding, tracking and monitoring the health and safety of spacecraft at many distant planetary locales."
The new network provides highly secure and reliable communications to transport telemetry data gathered from radio signals from spacecraft.
The Deep Space Network -- made up of a network of large antennas and communication facilities in the United States, Spain, and Australia -- also is used for radar mapping of passing asteroids. The network also sends commands to spacecraft - like the Mars rovers and the New Horizons and Juno probe, both orbiting Jupiter.
The network is set up strategically around the globe to provide constant communication with probes and other vehicles in space.
As the planet rotates and a spacecraft is about to sink below the horizon at one network site, another can pick up the spacecraft's signal to ensure communication continuity.
AT&T's Leff said the VPN was installed on the network in two phases.
The first phase was completed this past summer, while the second part of the project was completed earlier this month.
The VPN allows data to be transferred three times faster than before and supports near real-time communications, while also securing the data.
"Protecting the integrity of the data flowing across Deep Space Network is critical for scientific research," Leff told Computerworld. "Unfortunately, we live in a world where individual and state actors are willing and eager to hack any computing system for a variety of purposes."
Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research, said it makes sense for any closed networks -- no matter how big -- to use a VPN.
"This one is big only in distances, not in number of nodes," he added. "They need compression and security, so a VPN is the way to go."
Patrick Moorhead, an analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy, agreed.
"I am surprised they didn't use a VPN beforehand and I do think there is a big risk from losing intellectual property but also sabotage without one," he said. "Hackers have been active for decades. Billions of dollars are being spent on space exploration and many of these technologies can be used for defense purposes. Therefore, space is a juicy target for theft ... it's smart to use a VPN to secure their investments."