Opinion

Connecting Mars to the web, and other big ideas

JINOY JOSE P | Updated on March 09, 2018

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Who’s harbouring these celestial ambitions?

The name is Musk, Elon Musk. He is the founder of, among others, SpaceX aka Space Exploration Technologies Corp, based in the US. SpaceX is also popular for making re-usable rockets.

What’s he smoking?

As it turns out, he’s quite rooted. Only his ideas fly. In this case, he wants to set up a colony on Mars and use it as a communication hub to beam internet to our humble planet. But this will take time; some years in Musk’s own words. His immediate goal — and something that’s more important to lesser mortals like us — is to plant hundreds of satellites across the orbit and provide seamless, superfast and affordable internet to over three billion people who still have poor access to the web.

Will anyone buy these ideas?

Well, Google just did. This week, along with Fidelity Investments, the search giant invested $1 billion in SpaceX, which also builds rockets, for a 10 per cent stake.

What’s driving Google here?

Google is enamoured by SpaceX’s mission to offer seamless, faster connectivity to people, which is perfectly in sync with its business and research interests. Last year, Google bought a company called Skybox Imaging, which makes small, high-resolution imaging satellites, for about $500 million.

Also, the search giant wants to race ahead of rival Facebook, which is already associating with a project by WorldVu Satellites (now OneWeb) that aims to deliver web access untapped, poor regions by building drones, satellites and lasers. OneWeb, backed by Qualcomm and Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, plans to launch a constellation of 648 micro-satellites into the orbit.

Is OneWeb a rival to Musk’s venture?

Not really. Musk believes his is a larger canvas. His space internet venture will have several hundreds of satellites in all sizes and shapes orbit about 750 miles (1200 km) above the earth. That’s much closer given that traditional communications satellites roam around at altitudes of about 22,000 miles (35,405 km). That the satellites are closer to our planet will make internet speedier, with less distance for electromagnetic signals to travel.

This is important and innovative because the delay in current satellite systems makes applications such as Skype, online gaming and other cloud-based services fail intermittently while they are running on satellite internet.

But can it match fibre optic-based web?

Musk says his system can give them a run for their money. Ideally, his space internet can deliver data many times faster than fibre optic cables.

How?

Usually, in landline internet, which most of us use in India as well, data packets shuttle between dozens of routers and terrestrial networks. In space internet, data would go to space, bouncing between satellites until they reach the one nearest their destination, then return to an antenna on earth.

According to Musk, the speed of light is 40 per cent faster in the vacuum of space than it is through fibre. Also, satellite signals can reach places where cables just can’t go, thereby making internet accessible to poorer and remote regions.

That’d be great, if it works out

Let’s hope so. There are many risks. A similar project, Globalstar, which tried to build a network of low-orbit satellites in the 1990s, had to wind up as multiple failures and fund troubles dogged it.

Anyway, SpaceX has the money now; it’s valued at about $10 billion, and runs contract operators for Nasa, to supply cargo to the International Space Station. Musk wants to make his space internet dream functional in about five years and plans to use it as the basis for a system that will go up all the way to Mars.

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Published on January 21, 2015

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