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Space, the next frontier in connectivity

Plans for humans living in space are no longer science fiction, as the likes of Tesla founder Elon Musk, Google, and Facebook seem to be seriously preparing for a manned Mars mission. This raises the question: how will these people communicate in space? And, can the internet even exist out there?

On earth, we are spoiled with very low latencies in our communications – from microseconds for High Frequency Traders, to milliseconds for the rest of us. Latency is the delay that an electronic signal encounters during its travel to its destination – meaning distance can play a big role in the speed.

In the case of one way communications, latencies are not very cumbersome. But that’s different in synchronous communication, like in a phone call. Remember the early days of intercontinental telephone calls via subsea cables? A conversation was hard to have, as questions and answers were hopelessly out of sync. To put the Mars communications debacle into perspective – it’d be much like that. If an astronaut on Mars tried to call his child on Earth, even with the speed of light it would take almost half an hour roundtrip to get an answer to the question “Whats up?”.

The fact is, the delay of interplanetary communications is always going to be there. We’re just going to have to work around it. Prominent scientists, like Vinton Cerf, the founding father of the World Wide Web, are working on methods to handle the challenge of internet in space via the interplanetary Internet IPN (also called InterPlaNet).

Essentially, IPN is a conceived computer network in space, consisting of network nodes that can communicate with each other. The IPN needs a new set of protocols and technology that are tolerant to large delays and errors. Although the Internet as it is known today tends to be a busy network of high traffic networks, negligible delay and errors, and a wired backbone – the interplanetary Internet is a store and forward network of internets that is often disconnected, and has a wireless backbone fraught with error-prone links and delays ranging from tens of minutes to even hours, even when there is a connection.

So for now, the internet in space will have its limitations as the speed of light cannot be surpassed due to our limited knowledge of all this time-space-energy stuff. On the other hand, many inventions that have been introduced in StarTrek, like the tablet or the universal translator, became reality. So who knows: is time warping feasible?

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