Thursday, January 22, 2015

Elon Musk, Satellite Broadband, Space Internet, Mars... quantum entanglement?

Elon Musk talks Satellite Broadband

Musk's Semi-Futuristic Plans

When I read a recent Bloomberg article about Elon Musk (of SpaceX & Tesla fame) and his newest ideas / plans to launch a vast network of communication satellites, I was both intrigued by his plans for a dual-altitude network of satellites but also a bit let down that he did not also go a bit further "out there" with some long-term technology visions like he is known for.

He mentioned being able to using SpaceX to help launch a vast array (thousands) of satellites that would comprise this new space Internet / network.  He also mentioned why the dual-altitude plans make sense — including facts about reduced latency between the ground user and the lower-orbit satellites, coupled with the higher speed of light in a vacuum (e.g., space) vs. speed of light through fiber optic cables (that can be 40% lower).  As anyone with current satellite Internet technology knows, latency (i.e., lag time) is currently a big issue and makes the service not even remotely usable (compared to terrestrial Internet connections) for gaming, real-time communication (e.g., Google Voice), etc.

The planet Mars enters the picture next as Musk envisions connecting another set of Mars-orbiting satellites back into to Earth-orbiting network at some point in the future.  This will truly be needed if humans make any serious push to explore Mars (with "boots on the ground" especially), but why stop with Mars?  Other targets in our solar system seem perhaps even more hospitable than Mars — like the dwarf planet Ceres, or Jupiter's moons Europa and , or Saturn's moon Titan — and, presumably we will need network connectivity there also.

But, a network of satellites surrounding Earth needs to be connected to those other satellites on Mars, and with current technology this implies absolutely massive latency due to the distance between Mars and Earth.  When you have a light-speed minimum (one-way) distance of 4 minutes between Earth and Mars when the two planets are closest in their orbits (and a maximum of 24 minutes one-way when at their furthest), it does not take long to see the huge issues that will follow.  Who wants to wait up to 48 minutes for a "ping" to return??

As such, Elon Musk has some great ideas for the near term, but how about some very forward-looking prognostications about the technology that will make nearly the entire (satellite-based) scheme (hopefully) obsolete in the future?

Seriously Futuristic Plans : Quantum Entanglement Networks

Zero Latency.  Distance irrelevant.  Latency between New York and London: zero.  Latency between Earth and Mars: zero.  Quantum entanglement makes this a possibility (at least in my semi-educated opinion), and whatever company commercializes this and takes it big-time is going to be worth more than every other communications and networking company put together.  What would you pay for truly "instant" communications between any two points at any arbitrary distance apart?  Lots.  And, it would fundamentally change all sorts of industry.  That aside, let me get back on point...

Quantum entanglement or QE (aka, "spooky action at a distance", per Einstein), which allows two entangled particles (electrons and photons, e.g.) to "share state information" instantly at any arbitrary distance, is not just theoretical, it has been demonstrated in very real experiments.  I expect these varied experiments to yield a practical (data-communications) application within the next 2 or 3 decades.

There is still considerable debate about whether FTL (Faster-than-Light speed) communications are truly possible using QE — in fact plenty of information out there says it is impossible — , but, if it is and if some brilliant scientists figure out a way to communicate data at FTL speeds (i.e., "instant" regardless of distance), everything changes.  Mars, Europa, Titan... here we come with instant connectivity to our home-planet Earth!

Apparently Elon Musk did not want to sound crazy by suggesting deploying a series of quantum-entangled network switches, so I did it here for him.  Keep in mind: these do not need to be located on satellites: they can be placed on the ground anywhere on Earth, on Mars, etc... the entangled particles should not care where they are located.  Thus, the need for satellites could be removed instantly if this type of communication is achieved.

I may ultimately be wrong in thinking that the final frontier in communications must be a fully FTL quantum-entangled network backbone, but I prefer to hold out hope for something that will once and for all solve the latency problem that plagues both Earthbound and inter-planetary-body communications currently.  Maybe Google could help fund making a QE solution a reality?

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