Will There Ever Be Internet on Mars?

Everyone loves a good space story. But stories sometimes aren’t good enough without a stable internet connection.

 

On the threshold of the Mars 2020 mission, we are wondering: will there be an internet connection for those going to Mars? Will it be stable, accessible, and fast enough? Spoiler alert: well, the answer is yes and no.

 

First off, the internet on Mars won’t be the same as the one we know, use, and unconditionally love here on Earth. It is possible to make a copy of our internet and deploy it on Mars. But even if this happens - it will work independently and without any connection to networks on Earth.

 

And as a result, any internet connection from Mars to Earth would be slow. Painfully slow.

If you wonder how slow it will be… Well, no matter your reading speed, you will probably finish this article faster than getting a single ping response back. But, even though speed is one of the major issues of the internet on Mars, it’s not the only potential issue around getting online in space.

 

So let’s dive right in and explore what makes the internet on Mars so hard to deploy.

WWW on the ISS

Back in 2010, NASA provided the International Space Station (ISS) crew with access to the World Wide Web. The astronauts were able to use a satellite link, establish a remote desktop connection with a computer in Houston, and get online from there.

 

It was not an easy way to access the internet, but at least it was a safe one. Because whatever happened to an ISS crew member online - be it malware, a phishing email or a malicious link - only the ground computer would be compromised. Brilliant scheme.

 

The famous tweet posted by NASA astronaut T.J. Creamer made its way into headlines. It was the first ever tweet sent from space.

 

Hello Twitterverse! We r now LIVE tweeting from the International Space Station -- the 1st live tweet from Space! :) More soon, send your ?s

— TJ Creamer (@Astro_TJ) January 22, 2010

 

For the ISS, the internet has finally become yesterday’s problem. But for Mars, it is still the question of tomorrow. And we can only guess how long resolving it will take. Here’s why.

Cosmic rays

Here on the ground, the atmosphere and magnetic field of the planet serve as shields for everything electronic. But no such protection exists in space.

 

For this reason alone, all electronic elements used in spacecraft are designed to resist radiation. Even so, radiation continues to be one of the biggest problems for electronic devices. That’s why in orbit laptops quickly get out of service, photos taken on cameras feature dead pixels, and the memory of onboard devices is destroyed in no time.

Encryption

Another problem is a lack of encryption. Because just like ground computers, satellites are vulnerable to attacks.

 

With this in mind, the European Space Agency launched an experiment aimed at improving this situation. Researchers created a device to test out two radically different ways of encrypting communication between satellites in a timely and cost-effective manner. In April 2019, the device was flown to the ISS, and was meant to run continuously for at least twelve months.

 

With that said, some efforts have already been made to safeguard communications between satellites. However, an easy way to upgrade the already existing systems still does not exist. This is why encrypted communication cannot be expected to go live in the years to come.

High ping, low speed

The speed of light is going to be the major issue with any interplanetary connection, as it travels at approximately 186.000 miles per second. Before we calculate the speed of light reaching Mars, let’s go all the way to our closer neighbor, the Moon.

 

On average, it takes light 1.26 seconds to travel from the Earth to the Moon. Of course, it’s just part of the journey, because any connection needs a call (ping) and a response (pong). So every two-sided communication would take twice as long, which is 2.52 seconds per one request and response. This might seem acceptable for basic browsing, but is totally awful for more advanced activities such as playing a video game or checking social networks.

 

Who might need Instagram on the moon remains a good question. But one thing is clear: for efficient communication, connection speed should be faster.

 

Now let’s calculate the ping/lag time from the Earth to Mars. The average distance between the two is 225 million km. So if you do the math, an average of 751 seconds (which is more than 12.5 minutes!) is an approximate time for each leg of the journey from the Earth to Mars and vice versa. On average, the full journey would take 25 minutes - which is more than enough to drive anyone nuts… or to make’em give up using the internet at all :)

Internet on Mars: Possible or not?

Even 10 years after the installation of the internet on the ISS, the internet on Mars is quite an issue. A network speed with over 12.5-minutes worth of signal delay is just part of the puzzle. Better encryption mechanisms and radiation protection are needed in the years to come. 

 

Yet, lots of research has been done and continues to progress. With some hard work and innovative thinking, accessing the internet on Mars quickly and securely might not be as unobtainable as it currently appears.

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