Space travel has fascinated the collective psyche for decades, or to be exact, since October 4, 1957, when the U.S.S.R. launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite to orbit Earth. There have been ongoing Mars missions launching from Earth since the 1960s, searching for water and life.
This red arid-looking planet, named after the Roman War God Mars, has been luring mankind since it was first sighted by Galileo Galilei in 1610 and has once again gained notoriety.
Numerous Mars-bound missions began in February 2021, starting with NASA’s Perseverance rover and Ingenuity helicopter that reached Mars that month. The United Arab Emirates joined the race with their first interplanetary mission, introducing the Hope orbiter. The China National Space Administration’s Tianwen-1 orbiter completed China’s first successful mission to the Red Planet in 2021 as well.
Finding water on Mars is only one of the numerous obstacles we’re faced with in our attempt to colonize Mars. Consider this; the distance between Mars and Earth is 42 million miles. To send a signal between Mars and Earth, there is a three minutes and two seconds delay, and that’s on a good day.
The position between these two astral bodies, as they orbit around the sun, determines the delay, so that by the time you reach Mars it could be up to 20 minutes, which would create a 40-minute hole in your two-way conversation.
On his quest to bring people to Mars, Elon Musk’s Starship is being designed as a fully reusable transportation system, capable of carrying passengers and cargo to Earth’s orbit, the Moon, Mars, and beyond.
But the question still remains, how will early settlers on Mars communicate with each other and with family and friends on Earth? What about streaming videos, real-time video chats, and GPS? Are people expected to give all this technology up and rely on old radio signals? What about 5G?
Feasibility studies for the use of 5G technology in space are being conducted, however, WiFi signals are not very data efficient and lose strength, with increased distances, due to their longer wavelengths.
This simple animation by James O’Donoghue, at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), shows the communications delay that Mars mission controllers are faced with.
Without the means to efficiently communicate with each other, life on Mars is a dreary prospect and would feel like a plunge into the dark ages for most people.
Imagine yourself as an ex-pat on Mars, unable to efficiently communicate with each other and earth, all the while dealing with harsh living conditions. What would you do?
Many would just want to hop right back on that Starship, ready to start their nine-month journey back to earth. If you stop to think about it, there’s a lot at stake here. There are many scenarios that would prove difficult on Mars without improved means of communication.
Imagine having to urgently report a medical emergency, a malfunction, or a security breach. By the time the message reaches its destination it may be too late for a timely intervention. The key to the successful colonization of Mars lies in resolving the communication gap.
NASA’s Laser Communication Relay Demonstration, which launched in 2019, served as an important proof of concept for laser technology. Laser technology could very well be the future of space colonization, as it offers more bandwidth in less time, and would cover all communications around the colony, with Earth and even the Moon for that matter!
Interoperability standards for space communications also need to be established. Simply put, it would be preferable not to replicate the model used here on earth, where for example, an iPhone user can’t airdrop files to someone with an Android, yikes. It May sound crazy, but things will be complicated enough for those brave souls willing to be the pioneers of colonization in deep space, without these added complications.
The vision and design for a communications network between Mars, the Moon, and Earth point to networks of fully interoperable laser-beam satellites. These would be scattered across millions of miles, also known as ‘constellations’.
Starlink plans to deploy a staggering 42,000 satellites in Low Earth Orbit, Amazon’s Kuiper will launch over 3000, and OneWeb plans to have 648. Then there’s China, with a plan to launch an internet-dedicated mega-constellation of 13,000 units. By 2030 it is estimated that about 100,000 satellites will be roaming our orbit. This solution doesn’t come without its own can of worms.
Elon Musk’s Starlink is positioning itself to offer settlers on Mars the opportunity to keep living and communicating the way they’ve become accustomed to on Earth, at least as far as communication and entertainment are concerned. Starlink could potentially even make SETI, also known as the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, a stronger component in the search for alien life.
Regardless of the scope, ambitions, and investments being made in this race towards space, one thing is clear, a fast and reliable communication network is the key to success if we want to boldly go where no man has gone before.