Elon Musk Plans Wi-Fi on Mars

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Elon Musk’s vision of the future appears to have no limits. The co-founder of Tesla, who takes no money from the company, may go down in history as the main driving force behind electric cars. Last year, he put a classic car into space. He is not stopping there, however. His most recent project is to develop a Wi-Fi network fit for Mars – our nearest planetary neighbour and subject of recent research into colonisation. The multibillionaire will not pay for this programme from his own funds. Instead, he will use the money generated from a current working project called Starlink.


What Is Starlink?

Starlink is a planned network of satellites in development by SpaceX, Elon Musk’s aerospace research and manufacturing company. The plan is for Starlink to be a high-speed and low-cost internet satellite network, including bus and ground-based transceivers, to access the web anywhere in the world. If it works as planned, it will enable people in space to access the internet uninterrupted and with the same efficiency as those on the ground. It should also improve connection quality in places where web access is currently poor. As part of the research programme, SpaceX may also develop military and scientific research satellites.

  • The first major phase of Starlink will include around 1600 satellites at an altitude of 550km (around 350m) above the surface of the Earth. This is far lower than most satellites
  • The FCC (Federal Communications Commission) recently approved a further 4,425 satellites
  • By the mid-2020s, if the initial stages are successful, the programme should expand to 12,000 satellites

Musk believes the programme will generate enough funding for improvements in technology for space exploration, especially rockets and manned ships. Along with NASA, they are researching the possibility of expanding the internet to other planets.


The Drive to Expand Internet Across the Solar System

It is harder than we first might believe to transmit wi-fi signals across space. These are extreme distances, far greater than we conventionally deal with when creating a network on the ground for use in a local area. Such a system would require a lot of redundancy in case a satellite or a cluster of satellites break down. That is just one issue. Others include the increased noise from powerful extra-terrestrial bodies and greater potential for error in transmissions. Such a network would use something called Delay/Disruption Tolerant Networking, or DTN, which isn’t much different from conventional internet connectivity.

The aim is to extend the internet all the way to Mars; the idea is not new. It was first proposed and attempted in 2009 as a way of speeding up communications between probes. An internet link between Earth and Mars would also have meant sending around 2gb of data (one way) every Earth day. That’s the equivalent of three CDs and much more than present methods permit.

An environmental monitoring satellite called PACE (Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem) scheduled for launch in 2022 will see the first deployment of the DTN system. It will be the first test of the possibilities of internet connectivity in space. Researchers expect that even if the connection is disrupted, the system will continue to accumulate data and send it when comms reopen. Under the current system, such data is lost, but spacecraft and satellites will use redundant memory as temporary storage to prevent this loss.


All the Way to Mars (And Beyond?)

NASA, JPL and Musk’s enterprise businesses currently aim to put a human colony on the red planet sometime in the 2030s. Speaking at a conference in the spring, Musk announced plans to eventually deploy an internet for Mars.

A satellite network which is hundreds or thousands of kilometres into space allowing communication between orbiting satellites or manned vehicles is a monumental task. Expanding that network all the way to Mars and to allow two-way communication between planets would be an even greater undertaking.

No Martian colony could depend on Earth to relay internet signals long term as they could take anything up to 25 minutes to transmit one way. There are presently no permanent fibre optics or wiring, or even infrastructure to build such a network, so one must be built.

SpaceX believes that such a network of internet connectivity for Mars would not just enable comms between it and Earth but will enable the easier exploration of the planet. Colonists could monitor weather patterns, especially for the enormous dust storms that occasionally well up and cover a large percentage of the planet. Many believe that Starlink will eventually provide the framework for achieving all of this. At present, it is a real possibility, though still in the planning stage.


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