Computers and outer space go hand in hand. Space travel accelerated the computing industry and computers are essential for manned and unmanned space travel. Computers guide spacecraft on their voyages and also process all the science and sensor data from various instruments. The Apollo moon missions forced NASA to fund the invention of the silicon microprocessor. They needed a computer that was small, lightweight and used little power to guide a space vehicle to its destination and process information. Thus, was born the integrated microprocessor and modern computing as we know it today. And with these modern computers, humans revolutionized communications, entertainment, security, business, science, medicine, warfare, transportation and we now have computer keyboards for our cats to jump on to get our attention. That’s progress!
Almost all computers are connected to some network. And because computers are more portable than ever, any modern car, airplane, train, boat or spacecraft has mobile computers to control their operation and serve the human travelers while in motion. This will only increase as we move into the future.
Most computer systems we use depend on some remote computer server. We never see these hidden brainy machines, but they are essential for modern information systems. These servers make web pages, email, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, messaging and all social media work. They also do the computing for every business, government organization and public utility.
Computing on or near Earth
Today, every company on Earth depends on information technology (IT). From the small non-profit organization and mom-and-pop store all the way to the multi-national corporation and large government agencies, IT is essential to their on-going operations. Whether the business is retail, finance, entertainment, construction, agriculture, energy, education or food distribution, you need information services. In addition, most communication goes over the internet whether it be voice, text message, or email. They cannot operate efficiently without computing power tracking this information and automating tasks.
In the past, there were small computer rooms doing a modest amount of the data processing. This grew into the large data centers we know today with hundreds of racks of computers that work together to make all the communications, data storage, and applications work. Organizations no longer need to setup their own data center anymore. Public cloud computing vendors such as Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud provide for the computing needs of many companies through the internet. This is what we call the Cloud. Through this, most people on Earth are now connected. We depend on technology so much that few could imagine human civilization without IT.
As humans venture away from Earth, they don’t want to lose their great artificial brainpower and communications. This does not just mean sending person-to-person messages to people back on Earth. The internet provides a great medium for sharing of ideas, education, entertainment and just being part of society. Each new generation of humans wants more interaction through computers, not less. NASA already created the first steps toward a Solar System Internet for the International Space Station by developing the Disruption Tolerant Network (DTN). Astronauts, whether in orbit or eventually on the Moon, will continue to wire themselves into the internet world.
The electronic world does not just make life more convenient. It gives us abilities we never had before. Information appears much less in physical form and more in electronic form. Books, letters, photographs, videos and all other forms of entertainment are stored on computer and we can now have gigabytes of personal information literally in the palm of our hand. More than that, with 3D printing, the designs of any goods, building materials, machine parts, medicines, and just about everything else will be stored on computer and then produced in physical form only when necessary to make life possible wherever humans plant our flag. With some exception, almost everything in human civilization can be stored on computer servers. So, the data center and storage devices will be more critical than ever as humans move off of Earth. The data center will eventually have to move into orbit or even to the Moon.
There are advantages with setting up a data center on the moon or on an orbiting satellite. The challenges in maintaining computers in data centers on Earth are the physical space needed, power and cooling requirements. On Earth, some data centers are located in northern latitudes where it is colder, so it is cheaper to keep the computers cool. Microsoft even proposed putting a fully automated data center at the bottom of the ocean to keep cool with its Project Natick.
In outer space, in order to find a cool place, we need only be shielded from the Sun. The heat would just radiate away. Computers don’t require an atmosphere so with no atmospheric gases holding onto heat and oxygen oxidizing the metals, deep space could be an optimum place for a data center. For electricity, Solar Panels would be much more efficient than they are on Earth. As far as space is concerned, there is a lot of space in space. In fact, with the lack of an atmosphere, the vacuum of space is about as clean as any clean room on Earth. Data disk platters could be exposed and will last for decades or centuries. Just ask Voyager 1 and Voyager 2.
Public Cloud becomes the Interplanetary Cloud
As humans move away from Earth’s influence, so must our computing technology. Interplanetary distances present a challenge for internet connectivity. The Moon or an orbiting station will have only a small but acceptable delay of about 2.5 seconds in communications. Moving to Mars and beyond, even at the speed of light, the one-way communication time for transmissions varies from 13 to 24 minutes. This makes back-and-forth communication too inconvenient and too long to wait for requested information to come to your screen. The data center will have to move out to Mars or possibly an asteroid and will have to replicate information from servers near Earth on a scheduled basis. At first, only the most important information will be copied into a Martian data center. In time, all human data should be replicated.
There is an enormous advantage of replicating all data from Earth to Mars. The data will be backed up in a safe place away from Earth. If a cataclysm happens on Earth that destroys much of the data in data centers, such as a coronal mass ejection from the Sun or a repeat of the Carrington Event solar storm in 1859 that created havoc on the electric grid, the data will still be safely backed up on Mars and perhaps in some other save storage places in the solar system. Just as humans colonizing other planets will protect our species from extinction, saving the data from humanity onto computers on other planets will also protect our data from extinction. This would include photographs, music, recorded historical events, and all human knowledge. All human intelligence can be preserved in different data caches around the solar system.
OORT Cloud Computing or Nebula Computing
What about the distant future? Will humans ever travel to the stars and leave our home star? Some of our space probes already have and advanced probes in the future that leave the solar system may need computing resources. Can we setup a data center in the Kuiper belt and maybe the Oort Cloud? Keeping computers cool certainly won’t be a problem. But you won’t be able to power the computers with solar power. The Sun is too far away. A nuclear radioisotope thermoelectric generator would work just as it works to power all of Earth’s probes that go to the outer solar system and beyond.
Imagine if we have many advanced space probes exploring the Kuiper Belt or the Oort Cloud and beyond. When they need access to information that is not in their computer, it may not be acceptable to wait for the 1-2-day light speed travel time to make that request from computers in the inner solar system. Having a data center with a replication of necessary technical and scientific information may be required.
Any way you measure it, where human exploration goes, so will our data centers.