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I've been wondering about the internet connection on the ISS, and how it's used. We were talking in chat about astronauts personal belongings and free time, and it made me wonder about how they use the internet. This made me wonder about their internet connection and what kind of restrictions it might have. For instance, can astronauts get Netflix? Is there anything technologically or in terms of policy that would prevent them for having it or anything else like it?

Basically, are there technology difficulties or policies that dictate what the astronauts can and cannot do online during their free time aboard the ISS?

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  • $\begingroup$ I do not believe the connection is adequate for netflix. VOIP works though. $\endgroup$ – Organic Marble Sep 3 '15 at 2:35
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Yes, they can and do watch TV shows on the ISS. From an interview with Scott Kelly aboard the ISS:

Apart from posting pictures to Twitter and Instagram, Kelly also said he spends some of his limited downtime watching television.

What exactly does a highly trained astronaut watch while orbiting the planet and contemplating the mysteries of life? Kelly said his two indulgences are "Game of Thrones" and "Better Call Saul."

That said, the article does make clear that connection quality isn't necessarily great because it's dependent on ground stations being within sight:

"You have to be patient sometimes and be flexible and access it when we have the comm coverage, because we don't always have it," he said. "Probably about 45 to 50 minutes an hour…we have the capability to get on the Internet on the ground."

NASA says the spotty internet service is the result of the space station's proximity to certain ground-based sites.

In terms of restrictions on use the article mentioned using it for social media, online banking, the above quote about watching TV shows, but did make it sound like it's locked down enough to impact the speed:

The agency said it's "somewhat slower because there are additional security measures in place to ensure the safety and integrity of the internet data that is viewable aboard ISS."

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    $\begingroup$ All of the films, TV shows, and even music are provided to the ISS by the DOCS group out of Johnson Space Center. Often times new releases are transcribed, screened to determine video quality, and then added to a 'media server' for the crew to access. Similarly this can be done with TV shows. The crew can request new movies or TV shows and they will be added for the the crew to the 'media server' which can be buffered and accessed by the crew. Its a nice selling point for a Hollywood movie to be screened on the ISS and thus many production companies give NASA advance copies. $\endgroup$ – amkas90 Oct 4 '16 at 22:14
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    $\begingroup$ "ensure the safety and integrity of the internet data that is viewable aboard ISS" = porn blocker. $\endgroup$ – Innovine Jan 6 '17 at 9:29
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    $\begingroup$ @Innovine More importantly, malware blocker. You really don't want ISS computer systems getting viruses or other such programs (for example, imagine how much of a pain it would be if the ISS computers got hit with ransomware). $\endgroup$ – JAB May 12 '17 at 19:54
  • $\begingroup$ @jab they have been hit by a virus before. $\endgroup$ – Innovine May 13 '17 at 6:46
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I didn't work on the server end of things, but I recall hearing at work that normal Internet streaming doesn't work because the general assumptions made about connections are violated.

The latency is long, and connection pathways change often and by extreme amounts. A normal web-app will detect a problem and reset the connection. The software I worked on needed the client end "adjusted" to work.

The official NASA communications uses a special network whose name I don't recall (a bunch of letters). Internet access uses a totally different "be nice if..." system plugged into consumer Internet.

The computers inside the Space Network cannot access Internet servers. They can use an airgapped proxy in Houston (connected by HDMI cable only so the Internet PC seems to be a camera on the Space PC), so they could in principle browse anything and use the “special” remote desktop video (explained above) to view it; but that requires a helper in Houston to do the actual typing for you, and for viewing streaming video it would be pretty lousy if it wasn’t aware of the final leg in a seamless system. Watch a video on a remote desktop over a horrible laggy connection to get the feel for it.

So what do you do about watching video with a bad connection? Download the file first and watch (eventually) when you know you got it all; or use lots of buffering. It seems that most watching apps are doing away with expected buffering; e.g. pausing for a while doesn't make it buffer the whole movie: and is unfriendly to poor or intermittent connections.

Game of Thrones is on DVD, so maybe he's not streaming at all.

Update: see this press release.

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    $\begingroup$ I'm not finding the article I had that spelled it out, but back in 2010 when they first got a live internet connection it was done by using remote desktop to connect to a computer on the ground that had internet access. That takes the latency out of the equation from the perspective of the streaming client (because the client is running on the ground computer) and it was explicitly stated that they used it for video calls, so the quality would be good enough that streaming could work. The article referenced in my answer was more current so I only included that. $\endgroup$ – 1337joe Sep 3 '15 at 15:49
  • $\begingroup$ special network whose name I don't recall: ATM, maybe? $\endgroup$ – Hobbes Oct 4 '16 at 10:12
  • $\begingroup$ @Hobbes ATM is to networking as Ethernet or token ring is to networking. I have the feeling that TDRSS is closer to what JDługosz was thinking of. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Oct 4 '16 at 11:20
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelKjörling that sounds familiar. IAC it should be pointed out to thise curious about space networking. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Oct 4 '16 at 16:18
  • $\begingroup$ @1337joe I added more about that to my answer, as I recently was reminded about it. A streaming-quality view of the ground PC is still an issue. And the airgap is an hdmi cable (to see the screen) only, so you can’t actually type on the ground PC. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Oct 4 '16 at 16:23

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