Extending the Terrestrial Internet on Mars with Orbital Data Servers

You did it. After years of effort and training, sacrifice and suffering, you become an astronaut and finally set foot on Mars. It’s time to post your TikTok triumph for that sweet social media credit. If only you can get a signal.

While it might seem like a silly scenario, the need for internet connectivity on Mars is real. It’s not just about allowing astronauts to doomscroll and post to Reddit. Landing humans on Mars will require a huge amount of data transfer with Earth, which isn’t easy. So how do we create an information network on Mars that is robust enough for both logistical and personal needs? A document published in the arxiv proposes an idea.

The idea of ​​an interplanetary Internet is not new. Astronauts on the International Space Station already have access to the web, though they often complain about its dial-up speeds. And Internet pioneers like Vint Cerf have proposed protocols that would enable communication between planets. But the devil, as they say, is in the details, which is where this latest article comes in.

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There are two main challenges to providing internet connectivity on Mars. The first is simply bandwidth. You can’t lay fibers from Earth to Mars. You have to transfer data back and forth by radio. Right now, our communication with Martian satellites and rovers is done by the Deep Sky Network (DSN), which is a collection of large radio antennas around the world. But the DSN has already been pushed to its limits, and we haven’t even had a manned mission to Mars. Meeting data demands in the future will require new ideas.

How to send photos of cats to mars. Credit: Pfandzelter, et al

One such idea, as the paper points out, is edge computing. While you probably don’t realize it, edge computing is why you can watch streaming services like Netflix and Disney+. It takes a huge amount of bandwidth to stream television and movies, so streaming services spread out their servers to get better speeds. When you check out the latest Marvel series, Disney+ doesn’t send you the data from Orlando, Florida, but rather from a local server closer to your home. This means you don’t have to wait long for the latest AI-generated opening credits. It also means that the load is spread across the servers, so no one gets overloaded.

This latest work examines what it would take to have an edge computing network around Mars. The key is not only to have locally accessible data, but also to have some level of redundancy. Then they propose to build a constellation of satellites around Mars. Their system would have 9 satellites each in 9 orbital planes, for a total of 81 satellites. As with many constellations, the satellites would communicate with each other to have redundant backups of data. This means that various landing sites on Mars would be able to communicate with 2 or 3 satellites at any given time. For extended missions, land-based servers could be used for even faster data retrieval.

Building such a system wouldn’t be cheap, so the authors propose building the constellation in stages. While exploratory missions to Mars lay the groundwork for manned landings, some satellites in the constellation could go on for the ride. By the time the long-term stations are built, the constellation may already be in place.

So who knows, when you set foot on the red planet, the internet may be ready for you.

Reference: Pfandzelter, Tobias and David Bermbach. “Can Orbital Servers Provide Mars-Wide Edge Computing?” prepress arXiv arXiv:2306.09756 (2023).

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