As Rivals Struggle, Google Goes to Infinity…and Beyond

As its Earth-bound rivals struggle to catch up, search king Google has taken yet another small step to expand its realm into the cosmos by creating an interplanetary network.

MediaPost reports:

Google Evangelist Vint Cerf could see his dream of creating an interplanetary network, an extension of the Internet, become reality by the end of this year. Last October, NASA offered Cerf and colleagues at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) an opportunity to upload the protocol to a spacecraft in orbit.

The group, which designed the protocol after discovering that ordinary Internet TCP rules would not work, also has uploaded the standard to the International Space Station. They needed a protocol that would handle the long transmission delay between planets or spacecrafts. In August, the group uploaded the protocols to the same spacecraft, which NASA plans to rename, Cerf told conference attendees at Search Marketing Expo (SMX) West on Wednesday….

By this time next year, Google will have interplanetary network–a three-node protocol in place that links Earth, a NASA spacecraft and the International Space Station. Cerf hopes NASA and other space organizations around the world will adopt the same protocol. Making the three-node system interoperable will enable space organizations worldwide to share information and recall important documents and data used in prior missions.

A communications backbone that humanity will use to become a space-faring civilization. How cool is that?

This is just the latest milestone in the deepening relationship between the world’s search leader and the space community. The Mountain View, Calif.-based company is sponsoring the Google Lunar X Prize, a $30 million race to land a rover on the Moon. Sixteen teams are competing for the money and the glory that landing the first private spacecraft on the Moon would bring them. Additional teams may be announced soon.

Prizes can be really good investments. Google reaps valuable publicity for years on a very cool project that captures a lot of press attention and millions of eyeballs. The competition will be exciting as teams aims for the moon. Payment isn’t due until someone actually claims the prize (if they do at all). Spread out that investment over four or five years, the cost is quite affordable.

Meanwhile, Google founder Sergey Brin wants to visit space himself. He has put down a $5 million deposit with Space Adventures to reserve a seat on a Soyuz spacecraft headed for the International Space Station. The mission will likely occur in 2011 and could cost $40 million or more.

One intriguing possibility: Brin will become the first private citizen to walk in space. To date, only professional astronauts have been able to venture outside space vehicles. Space Adventures offers that option to its billionaut clients; so far, no one has taken them up on it.

Now, $40 million sounds like a lot of money, but it’s actually a pretty good investment when you consider the publicity this will bring Brin and Google. Brin will probably be able to write off the entire trip as a business expense if he spends the time promoting Google backed experiments and educational activities.

While Brin awaits his flight, his company has been busy enhancing its Google Earth and Maps programs with an exclusive deal for imagery from the recently-launched Geo-Eye satellite. The commercial remote sensing spacecraft returns high-quality imagery to a resolution of 41 centimeters.

In addition to helping to fuel private space ventures, Google is forging close links with NASA. It has found a willing partner in the entrepreneurial NASA Ames Director Pete Worden (who was recently named federal lab director of the year). Google is building office space on land controlled by the space center. And while other Silicon Valley CEOs are forced to take chauffeur-driven cars to one of the area’s two commercial airports, Google’s top people flies its corporate planes out of Moffett Field right next door.

Then there is Google Mars, a program the company developed using NASA data that allows anyone to soar over the Red Planet’s giant canyon, Valles Marineris, and to scale the heights of the Solar System’s largest volcano, Olympus Mons. Google Mars is a great advertisement and marketing for Google while making use of taxpayer-funded data.

The latest Google venture with NASA Ames is the new Singularity University. The school will begin classes this summer at Ames, where it will be permanently based. The school is being backed by the International Space University, which also will hold its annual summer session at the NASA facility this year. ISU co-founder and X Prize creator Peter Diamandis is one of the new university’s founders.

The school will give Google access to the world’s top minds in robotics, computers, nanotechnology, biology and other fields that will be crucial to humanity’s future. The costs of running a summer session is relatively low, especially when you partner with a NASA center that has space available. Meanwhile, the potential benefits of the insights, connections and possible ventures that will come out of this collaboration are quite high.

There is always the question for any business as to whether going into a new area will be a benefit or a distraction. Will it enhance what you are doing and your core business, or will it lead you off on marginal activities that give rivals a chance to catch up? It’s an interesting question to ask about Google’s space activities.

Thus far they seem to have managed to do it in ways that have created value for their business. It will be interesting to see if they can continue along that path in the future.