Placing collect calls from orbit

Talk about a long-distance call: astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) orbiting miles above Earth are now phoning home. ISS astronauts use Cisco Systems Inc. SoftPhone software running on flight-approved laptops through a voice-over-IP (VoIP) system. “There’s basically a network on board, a network on the ground, and we connect the two,” says Matthew Bordelon, project manager for crew support laptops at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. The first flight test calls were placed from the space shuttle Atlantis in February. The system is being tested for use aboard the station in the future.

The only seemingly unavoidable glitch so far is the satellite link delay of a few

seconds in voice transmissions. Satellite availability can cause additional delays of up to several minutes. “Most of the time, it’s less than one second,” Bordelon says. Still, extraterrestrial workers do phone home. ET would be jealous.