Tag Archives: mars

Verizon buys enough fiber to reach Mars, sorta

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Make it quick.

Verizon is pumping up the volume about its three year deal with Corning to spend $1.05 billion on “fiber optic cable and associated hardware”. It even got a congratulatory (and self-congratulatory) press release from Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai. As it should It’s a big commitment and will add a considerable amount of potential bandwidth to the U.S. supply.

Verizon also claims that it will be buying “up to” 20 million kilometers (12.4 million miles, it helpfully adds) of “optical fiber” each year, from 2018 through 2020. That’s enough optical fiber to wrap around the Earth almost 1,500 times. It could circle the Sun almost 100 times. It’s even enough optical fiber to build a middle mile line from Earth to Mars. Until it snaps off a few minutes after closest approach, anyway.

It is truly a big deal, but not as big a deal as a quick glance might lead you to believe. Verizon is careful to distinguish between “optical fiber”, which is a strand of glass, and “fiber optic cable”, which is a bundle of optical fibers. Cables come in many sizes, but 432-strands are typical for mobile carriers these days. Cables with 864 strands are not unheard of, and 288 is probably as small as you’re likely to see from them (granted, there are unlikely builds out there). But let’s say 432 strands.

That implies a build of 29,000 miles a year, or 87,000 miles total. At a total cost of $1.05 billion and allowing a bit for “associated hardware”, that comes to somewhere in the neighborhood of $2 a foot, which is in the volume discount ballpark for 432-strand cable. I’m sure it’s more complicated than that, but in round numbers it looks like Verizon is planning to build something like 80,000 to 100,000 miles of fiber plant over the next three years.

That’s a lot of backhaul, and a lot of cell sites.

Bring your own business plan and be ready to die, if you want to go to Mars

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Elon Musk outlined his technical roadmap for getting to Mars in a remarkable hour and a half long presentation at the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico on Tuesday. Most of what’s been written about it has focused on two themes: the need for a back-up planet in case something catastrophic happens on Earth and the $200,000 ticket price for a ride to Mars. The latter isn’t exactly accurate, and the former is not Musk’s reason for doing it.

He stressed that it’s about adventure and the innate satisfaction of taming a new frontier, and the people who go will be driven by their own visions and dreams…

The goal of SpaceX is really to build a transport system. It’s like building the Union Pacific railroad, and once that transport system is built, then there’s a tremendous opportunity for anyone who wants to go to Mars and create something new or build the foundations of a new planet. So, it’s like who wants to be among the founding members of a new planet and build everything from iron refineries to the first pizza joint? We’ll want them all.

His business model is a physical version of the online economy written on a grand scale. He’ll provide the Interplanetary Transportation System to move people and their possessions to Mars and beyond; everything else is up to them.

Which is why the media focus on the $200,000 ticket price is misleading. Musk made it clear he’s not offering a package holiday. His responsibility ends on arrival. Mars colonists will have to figure out what to bring, how to pay for it and support it across millions of kilometers, and what to do with it once they get there.

Which is exactly how it should be. Different people will try different things, and some will live and some will die. Some will struggle on the edge of extinction and some will make their fortunes. The stakes are higher than in the dot-com world, where a failed business plan is just bragging rights on a resume, but the principle is the same. It’s also the same principle that drove colonisation of the Americas – some settlements were completely lost and others barely survived. Even the Massachusetts Bay colony of Mayflower fame suffered a 50% death rate its first year. And there won’t be a friendly Indian tribe to help Mars colonists. Probably.

The first SpaceX flight to Mars will be in two years, using rockets and spacecraft that are already in service and taking payloads for hire. The new ITS, which can deliver 100 people to Mars and return, will fly in about ten years, if all goes well. Musk isn’t interested in selecting who goes, except that he wants to go himself eventually. Anyone with the cash can buy a seat, and there’s only one qualification.

“The risk of fatality will be high”, Musk said. “Are you prepared to die? Then that’s ok, then you’re a candidate for going”.

Click to download Musk’s presentation deck
Video of Musk’s presentation
Full video with Q&A session

Mars is underserved

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NASA is asking for private sector ideas to upgrade broadband infrastructure on Mars. Right now, there’s a 2 Mbps link between Earth and Mars orbit, and 500 Kbps between orbit and rovers on the surface. More bandwidth is expected to arrive in orbit in the next few years, but not enough to keep up with planned surface missions. So NASA has issued a request for information, in the hopes of finding a partner who can offer a sustainable solution

The RFI details possible new business models that would involve NASA contracting to purchase services from a commercial service provider, which would own and operate one or more communication relay orbiters. The solicitation is open to all types of organizations including U.S. industry, universities, nonprofits, NASA centers, and federally funded research and development centers, in addition to U.S. government and international organizations.

The press release mentions a recent experiment that achieved a 622 Mbps link between Earth and the Moon using a laser, which offers a clue to NASA’s backhaul bandwidth expectations.

It’s easy to gripe about the federal government spending money upgrading Martian broadband infrastructure while so many U.S. homes lack access to even the 500 Kbps that’s currently available on the Red Planet. But that’s a cheap shot and completely misplaced. Real world problems inspire practical solutions, regardless of the planet.

I can’t think of a tougher telecoms problem than finding a cost effective way of building a reliable link running at hundreds of megabits, if not a gigabit, between Earth and Mars. The technology that makes it possible will do even more here at home.

The business case for Mars

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At least we have each other. And a deodorant sponsor.

Dennis Tito wants to send a middle-aged married couple to Mars and back. No landing, just once around the Red Planet and home. He’s a multimillionaire who began his career as a genuine rocket scientist then applied his math skills to investing, where he made his fortune. He spent some of it becoming the first space tourist in 2001, and he plans to spend even more on a privately funded Mars mission.

He’s quick to point out he needs more money than he has, and he’s planning to get it from other wealthy donors and by selling off sponsorships and media rights. The feasibility study for the project lacks financial details, but there’s nothing wrong with taking a wild guess at revenue and expenses. Just for fun.

It’ll cost $100 to $150 million for the Falcon Heavy rocket he wants to use, assuming he just needs one. Except for one tiny problem, the spacecraft itself is pretty straightforward. It needs super-reliable life support for two people for 501 days, communications capability and a small engine for (hopefully) minor course corrections. The launcher will provide enough kick to get to Mars and a gravity slingshot around the planet will send it home.

The problem is designing a capsule that’ll take the heat of a very fast re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere – faster even than Apollo – and deliver a survivable landing. The Inspiration Mars engineering team thinks it can be done. Let’s say the design, testing, fabrication and integration work might cost as much as a big communications satellite. Call it $400 million, to make the hardware total an even half billion.

Tito says he has enough money to fund the project for the next couple of years. Looking at the time frames in the feasibility study, that’d be the initial design and testing work and probably a head start on construction. A couple hundred million bucks? The remaining three hundred million (just guessing, of course) would be spent over the following three years, giving him a two to five year window to raise it.

Crew selection, training and systems testing is another big expense, but it could also be the profit center that helps fund the hardware. It’s a reality TV show where couples compete with each other for the mission slot, spend months cooped up in simulators and run through rigorous space and land survival training. When things slow down, bring in the mission control crew to liven things up. Read between the lines of the feasibility study: X-Factor meets Real Housewives.

Once en route to Mars, the lucky couple will spend seventeen months in a high-tech VW bus. Ad revenue will pick up when they loop around Mars, and again when they return, with the drama of landing a sure ratings winner.

Red Bull is reckoned to have paid several million dollars just for a ten minute parachute jump from the edge of space last year. Tito is pitching a six and half year long drama, for the price of a couple of Star Trek movies. Not completely crazy. Not completely.