Marsnet is coming…

We take the Internet and constant connectivity for granted on Earth, but once you take a step into space, things start to get a lot less broadband, and a lot more dial-up. So as we look into our future, when we have human settlements on Mars, will there be a Mars Internet or "Marsnet"?

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These questions have been asked by SpaceX founder Elon Musk and he has announced plans to boost connectivity in space, potentially partnering with Google. But this isn't just about ensuring future Mars colonists can access their Netflix accounts; like most space endeavors, an off-world Internet infrastructure would have huge benefits to our daily lives on Earth.

"Our focus is on creating a global communications system that would be larger than anything that has been talked about to date," Musk said in an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek before his announcement on Friday about establishing a SpaceX office in Seattle, Wash.

The first step, according to Musk, would be to launch (using SpaceX rockets) an armada of satellites that would orbit Earth at a distance of around 750 miles. This altitude is much lower than the 22,000 mile geosynchronous orbit that traditional communications satellites are situated. Although challenging, this altitude would allow faster connectivity, making 'live' communications possible without a crippling lag.

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Currently, geosynchronous orbit is too far away to allow instantaneous communications. We are, after all, still limited by the speed of light and 22,000 miles of signal travel makes these orbits unsuitable for Skype conversions or Internet gaming, for example. By dropping the orbit of space Internet satellites to 750 miles, the lag time in space would be shorter than the lag time for signals to travel around on Earth through optical fibers.

"The speed of light is 40 percent faster in the vacuum of space than it is for fiber," said Musk. "The long-term potential is to be the primary means of long-distance Internet traffic and to serve people in sparsely populated areas."

Musk wants to do for Internet what satellites did for early TV transmissions in the 1960s.

But like most of Musk's big ideas, he sees no limit to his space Internet plans. After all, he has already said that he wants to build the first Martian colonies, it wouldn’t be right if the first astronauts on the red planet didn’t have an Internet connection.

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"It will be important for Mars to have a global communications network as well," he said. "I think this needs to be done, and I don’t see anyone else doing it."

To fund this Mars Internet idea, Musk hopes to funnel the revenue generated from his terrestrial Internet system to invest into the far grander idea of his "Marsnet" system.

In the near-term, Musk has some competition, however. OneWeb, which has notable investors such as Qualcomm and the Virgin Group, hopes to establish a satellite system that will deliver Internet to isolated communities around the globe.

For more on the challenges facing a Mars-based Internet, see my entry about Internet systems on the red planet. Many of these ideas were formulated during workshops with the Mars Foundation from 2007 to 2009.