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New Frontiers

As the agency continues to integrate streaming into various operations, Internet bandwidth still restricts the range of streaming applications. But the NGI will make it possible to stream at much higher bandwidths, including high-definition video (HD), with applications in remote project surveillance, telemedicine, and agency-wide collaboration.

"There's a push to find a way of working together well while keeping people in their separate centers," says Ken Freeman of NASA's Research and Education Network, which is developing the NGI at Ames. "HD is a part of that," says Freeman.

"There is a physical plan in place to change the information architecture of NASA's Web sites, and the way the agency works internally."

In particular, HD could prove beneficial for project surveillance in the name of efficiency. Last January, a JPL engineer was watching a webcast of the Mars Odyssey payload when he noticed that one of the water lines was broken. "The fact that more eyeballs were watching the payload saved NASA time and money," says Kennedy engineer Doumilin. Kennedy engineers have used webcams since 1995, but HD promises to make video-monitoring a fundamental tool for NASA project managers.

Managers may also use HD to monitor their staff. "When you're saying ‘yes, we're on schedule,' your eyes might be saying ‘no, we're not on schedule,' " says Hugh Lamaster at Ames. "HD will help managers make that kind of judgment remotely."

Bandwidth is not the only limit to NASA's video connectivity, however. Another factor is the potential security risk which streaming might pose for some agency operations.

A solution may lie in tools developed by other government facilities. Last May, scientists from the Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque, NM, tested a form of secure streaming at an environmental monitoring station in Helsinki, Finland. The scientists sent atmospheric radiation data through a virtual private network from the Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority in Helsinki to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna. Streaming encrypted video through virtual private networks could enable the IAEA to put remote monitoring systems in nuclear reprocessing plants, says Heidi Smartt of Sandia's international safeguards and technical applications group.

Still, the IAEA may be reluctant to replace all its nuclear safety inspectors with webcams. NASA has similar concerns for its most sensitive activities, which may intensify under Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who has emphasized the military objectives of future U.S. space policy.

But wherever the Federal government takes the agency, NASA flight controllers will certainly need to know whether they're talking kilometers or miles. Streaming media may help them stay on course.

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