SpaceX, Blue Origin Vie To Expand Mars-Earth Interplanetary Internet

Elon Musk’s SpaceX and its nemesis Blue Origin – already poised to compete over rocketing astronauts to the Moon – are now extending their face-off to another celestial sphere: Mars.

SpaceX, which has skyrocketed to become the globe’s superpower in terms of rocket launches and satellites lofted into orbit, and its would-be challenger are set to contend to build out the Interplanetary Internet linking Mars and Earth.

After winning NASA contracts to fly Artemis spacefarers to the South Pole of the Moon in the late 2020s, the rival space outfits could also joust in the heavens above Mars, tens of millions of kilometers from their terrestrial rocket bases.

Their twin-planet matchup was set in motion when NASA issued simultaneous awards, to Blue Origin and to SpaceX, to sketch out prototype designs for spacecraft to orbit Mars as part of its burgeoning Mars Exploration Program.

To interlink the Mars orbiters, robotic explorers and human astronauts who will follow in a super-network patterned after the Internet, NASA scientists and a constellation of scholars have been fine-tuning the futuristic Interplanetary Internet.

The five orbiters now circling Mars – NASA’s Mars Odyssey, MAVEN and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, along with the European Space Agency’s Mars Express and Trace Gas Orbiter – act as relay stations in the interplanetary system, transmitting images and data from the Perseverance and Curiosity rovers to the massive 70-meter antennas of the Deep Space Network, sited across Australia, Spain and California.

The Mars spacecraft now being developed by SpaceX and Blue Origin could be commissioned to extend this ring of Martian orbiters and the dual-world “network of Internets”.

NASA’s vanguard Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which oversees the robotic scouts exploring Mars and the American way stations above it, green-lighted SpaceX’s proposal to “adapt Earth-orbit communication satellites for Mars” – Starlinks that could beam broadband across future Martian cities while linking the nascent Mars-Net with its Earth-based doppelgänger.

The supreme architect of this twin-world network began sketching out its contours a quarter-century ago, after spearheading an earlier information revolution that gave birth to the original Internet.

Vint Cerf, chief designer of the world-changing technology that allowed siloed computers and isolated networks to communicate and exchange data a generation ago, likewise developed the foundational protocols and architecture that would allow robots and humans, spacecraft and mission controllers on opposite sides of the solar system to link up through the Interplanetary Internet.

A distinguished visiting scientist at the Jet Propulsion Lab, Cerf told me in an interview that the spacecraft developed under the new, dual awards to SpaceX and Blue Origin could ultimately help power the augmentation of the Mars Relay Network and the space internet.

But Cerf added that he and his confrères at JPL still haven’t provided the two independent space juggernauts with the software protocols at the heart of the system that enables each message to hop, from station to station, while completing an odyssey between two rotating planets that revolve around the sun at different speeds.

Yet his group “would look forward to this as they [Blue Origin and SpaceX] shift their attention from LEO [low Earth orbit] and Cis-Lunar to Mars.”

Cerf said the Interplanetary Internet is already playing a central role in JPL’s Mars expeditions, and is allowing scientists and NASA Mission Control teams to communicate with the robots now mapping and photographing the Martian dunes – from the surface and from orbit.

When astronauts begin touching down near the volcanoes, lava tubes and vanished oceans of Mars, they might jack into a future Worlds Wide Web to download the latest music videos or films from Apple
or become hyper-giant stars by YouTubing their Martian adventures.

But experiments by NASA researchers to connect these first-wave explorers with their friends and families back on Earth via Web-based virtual worlds in real time would require messaging that is faster than the speed of light, Cerf pointed out.

“There is no way to overcome the variable speed of light delay (3.5-20 minutes one way) so this is not going to be an interactive experience,” he told me during the interview. “At best we will have recorded video message exchanges like email attachments.”

Yet building out the space internet could help scientists and creatives begin transforming Mars into a second foundation for human civilization even before the first spacefarers begin landing.

Roboticists and architects at the London-based studio Foster + Partners have been training intelligent AI-enhanced robots to autonomously construct human habitats on the Martian dunes in advance of the first astronauts’ arrival.

Their “swarms” of interconnected droids would position three lightweight inflatable modules sent to Mars along precise coordinates relayed via the Interplanetary Internet. The Foster architects would send overarching guidelines to the bots – like “begin sintering the excavated regolith into five-millimeter layers above the modules until the entire pre-designed 3-meter shell shields the habitats” – and the robots collaborate to perfect the domed shield and await new instructions.

After scanning one of the Mars robotic architecture studies published by the Foster team – finalists in NASA’s 3D Printed Habitat Challenge – Cerf lauded the project: “This is a fascinating idea and I hope it can be made to work.”

Vint Cerf has predicted, in a series of oracle-like research studies and talks, a synergistic convergence of the space and cyberspace sectors, and he’s been hailed as a torchbearer for leading the revolutions that gave rise to the first-generation Internet and to its interplanetary progeny, feted by heads of state and the digerati.

Curators at the Internet Hall of Fame recount that President Bill Clinton presented Cerf with the U.S. National Medal of Technology, while Cerf’s peers honored him with the A.M. Turing Award, called the “Nobel Prize of Computer Science.”

When President George Bush gave him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the U.S. government’s highest civilian prize, he said Vint Cerf “played an extraordinary role in the story of our time.” Cerf co-invented the Internet, President Bush added, “one of the greatest innovations ever launched.”

Cerf’s extraordinary ability to divine the future, and to create it, continues apace.

During a captivating talk he gave titled “The Evolution of the Interplanetary Internet” and posted on YouTube, Cerf recalled that back in 1998, he met with a team at the Jet Propulsion Lab to brainstorm about projects they might design that could reshape the world 25 years into the future. “Our conclusion was why don’t we think about building a network that could operate across the entire solar system.”

That led to the first advances in interplanetary networking.

Now, he added, the Interplanetary Internet has already passed a sequence of tests with flying colors: astronauts aboard the International Space Station have tapped the network to tele-operate robotic rovers at an ESA space center in Germany, even as the ISS circled the globe at 28,000 kilometers per hour.

He forecast the interplanetary network will inevitably expand beyond Mars. As NASA and private space probes survey other planets, they could also double as nodes in the celestial internet that ultimately spans the solar system.

Over the next decades, he said, just as independent rocket corps come to dominate spaceflight, “some of the communication systems will move from the responsibility of the space organizations like NASA and ESA and JAXA to commercial enterprise.”

The Jet Propulsion Lab’s new overture to SpaceX and Blue Origin on networking spacecraft around Mars could represent NASA’s first move toward accelerating this trend.

In a fascinating preview of SpaceX’s progress toward helping found a new branch of civilization on Mars, Elon Musk boosted from the Starbase launch center in April that his Titan-size “Starship is the first design of a rocket that is actually capable of making life multiplanetary.”

Even before the Jet Propulsion Lab commissioned SpaceX to create simulations on circling Mars with networking spacecraft, its visionary founder sketched out his goal of ringing the planet with Starlink satellites, doubling as relay stations, to enable constant communication with Earth.

Starlinks outfitted with sophisticated lasers for inter-satellite communications would also beam broadband down to the first citizens of a SpaceX cosmopolis on Mars, Musk told space scientists and students who flocked to a gathering of the International Astronautical Congress in Baku last October.

“In order to have continuous coverage with Mars you’d have to have some relay system,” he said. “Ultimately we would want terabit, maybe petabit, level data transfer between Earth and Mars.”

Each flight of SpaceX’s next-generation Starship, the most technologically advanced, powerful and gigantic spacecraft ever created on this planet, could speed scores of satellites to Mars, said Professor Kip Hodges, the founding director of the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University, one of the leading American space studies centers.

That means SpaceX could one day emerge as the powerhouse in realizing the Jet Propulsion Lab’s vision of surrounding Mars with swarms of interlinked, hyper-tech spacecraft, Professor Hodges told me in an interview.


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