(Updated to include video)
In the weeks immediately following the end of the college football season, coaching staffs undertake what may be the hardest part of the year, convincing hyper talented all stars to come be a part of their program. For big time programs with big time ambitions, that often means staging elaborate productions where recruits are dazzled with visions of a championship run.
For team SpaceX, and its vision of establishing a second branch of human civilization on Mars, Friday night in Seattle, Washington had a great deal in common with one of those recruiting extravaganzas. The setting for the media free event was the Seattle Center where SpaceX founder Elon Musk used the backdrop of reentry scarred Dragon CRS-2 spacecraft in his effort to attract the best engineering talent possible to a new SpaceX office in nearby Redmond. While reporters weren’t allowed in, those in attendance had their cellphones, and the tweets told the story. The goal is audacious; to begin designing a massive constellation of very high tech satellites which will offer Internet communications on a global scale, and in doing so generate the income necessary to develop a city on Mars.
YouTube video of the event posted by “Cliff O”
Absent the Mars part, it was the second such venture announced in the same week, coming days after OneWeb announced a partnership with Virgin Galactic and Qualcomm to do much the same thing. The Seattle event made it clear however, that despite earlier reports to the contrary, OneWeb founder Greg Wyler and Elon Musk who are friends, will not be working together. In other words, the near future may seen two competing space based broadband platforms, marked by what Musk characterized as considerable technology differences.
OneWeb, which already has the spectrum rights necessary to offer its service appears almost certain to enter the marketplace first, but the SpaceX venture, for which Musk uncharacteristically sought to dampen expectations for a timeline, may be the true game changer. Based on a series of several enigmatic comments regarding the effort, it appears that SpaceX may be looking at using laser based transmissions for a fleet which could eventually total a stunning 4,000 satellites.
In 2013, NASA demonstrated laser based data transmissions from the LADEE spacecraft orbiting the Moon, and in recent months has undertaken the first such experiments from the International Space Station using the OPALS experiment, which was launched aboard the SpaceX CRS-3 Dragon.
As Innerspace pointed out when news of the satellite venture first broke, SpaceX, which keeps its compass pointed at Mars, would no doubt see the utility in perfecting a communications infrastructure which ultimately extends just that far. With the added news that the purpose is to actually fund a settlement on Mars, the means of achieving that vision is slowly coming into focus, even if there are not many details forthcoming about the satellites, or the services they would offer. It may be that many of the specifics are not worked out yet, and the goal, like that of some coaches, is to concentrate as much talent as you can possibly get, and then figure out if you’re going to run the 3-4. One thing seems clear, the design of the satellites will be iterative, and based on the track record of both SpaceX and Tesla, steady improvement rather than fixed capacity will be the norm, with the final product looking quite a bit better than the first edition. As for the marketing, that may be the easy part. Given the choice, and a fair price, who wouldn’t want their Internet communications provider to be using the profits to fund a city on Mars? Fans other planets perhaps?
In the meantime, there is this practical point to consider. While the daily routine of life on another planet may be tough to envision, one thing remains constant. People need to work, and they need to earn money. A thoroughly robust communications link between Mars and Earth would allow many future colonists to earn their living from their employers much as they do today, via computers or programming them, on-line and at a distance.
Mundane perhaps, but an entire city population can’t spend its time digging up ice, inflating domes and tending the hydroponics. You can bet Elon Musk understands this as well, and it is no accident that with his new venture, the SpaceX founder is supplying the answer to a question any would-be pioneer might expect to be asked “what would you do on Mars?” Simple, cue the Dolly Parton, cause its “9-5” baby, and then off to tend the hydroponics.