Monday, March 27, 2017

Talking Across the Stars

It seems we're getting closer every day to actually exploring the stars. The science pages are full of new discoveries, new technologies, new ideas that could get us to the point of colonizing other worlds in a much nearer future than we once imagined.

But we have some problems to solve first.

In past blogs, I've talked about the need for artificial gravity (and ways it might be produced) and faster propulsion systems to get us where we're going in a feasible amount of time. But there's another key element that will be required. Neil deGrasse Tyson calls it Quantum Entanglement communication. I call it skip buoy technology or subspace communications (depending on the novel).

But what is it exactly and why is it necessary?

Currently, communications via radio waves can only travel at the speed of light. That sounds pretty fast, but when you're talking about the distances in our own solar system, that means to have a conversation between Mission Control and someone on a planetary exploration vessel orbiting Jupiter (hello, Mitch and Lissa), you'd have a 33 minute gap in your conversation between each person.

Want to see the actual math formula? It's right here.

Here's an example.

I'm on standard radio communication with the NSS Robert Bradley.

Imagine me saying "Hi, Lissa."

That takes 33 minutes to reach Lissa and another 33 minutes for her reply to come back.

So 66 minutes later, Lissa replies. "Hello. How are you?"

I respond: "I'm great. Just finished another book."

And 66 minutes later, Lissa replies. "What's this one about?"

It's already been over two hours and Lissa and I have had a convo consisting of six sentences. And that's just chit chat. Now imagine having a spaaaaaace...and needing help from Mission Control, stat!

You see the problem.

Remind you a bit of this recent animated movie scene?

This exchange is actually pretty speedy considering the realities of communications over lightyears in space. Using current technology, you'd have a situation like the one in Passengers where an attempt to send a distress message from an outbound ship runs into time complications, like...19 years for the message to reach Earth and 36 years for Earth to send a reply for a total of 55 years.)

I addressed this when I wrote Outer Planets by inventing a fictional communications system (also called subspace skip communications in Inherit the Stars some 1500 years later) that allows radio signals to be arrive at their destination almost instantaneously via "interactive particles" in skip buoys set at various intervals in space.

In utilizing skip buoy tech, there's only a short delay to account for the software's translation time, but that might resemble a broadcast from other parts of the Earth via satellite now. It's a delay of only a second or so, at most. (Though if you've ever watched a newscast or interview via satellite, even a second delay can be pretty disconbobulating to the discussion, but at least you can have a discussion.)

The theory of Quantum Entanglement Communications that Neil deGrasse Tyson attempted to explain via a Star Talk Radio video posted on Futurism (click the title above to view) is a similar concept to this idea. (Though the theory still has problems to be solved, as Neil makes clear.)

In an nutshell, Quantum entanglement is what Einstein described as "spooky action at a distance"--two particles located in different places in the universe that are somehow interconnected and communicate simultaneously. So...faster than the speed of light. In fact, faster than the speed of anything known to man. Instant!

Better--i.e. nearly instant--communications is something we're going to have to develop before people actually start galloping around the cosmos in starships ala Star Trek, because in my example convo above, we're only talking about Jupiter. A next door neighbor, as planets go. If we were attempting to talk to someone in another solar system, we'd be dealing with a time lag of years, decades...or even millennia.

Talking across the stars is something that we need to make workable if we're ever to become a successful star-faring species.

Hope you have a great week.


  1. Interesting post, Laurie. Yes, comms will be an issue. It was accurate and well-handled in The Martian. Watching Vader chatting with the Emperor in TESB needed suspended credibility. A few people (eg Elizabeth Moon) use ansibles to allow for direct communication. I use something similar in my books, technology which allows data to travel through hyperspace faster than ordinary matter. But that's fiction, of course.

  2. Those are cool ideas, too. And you know how it goes, Greta. It takes someone to imagine it first, and then sometimes scientists will try to find a way to make it reality. There's a lot to be said for imagination.

  3. I haven't covered long distance comms in my published works yet - there's a draft of another Keir related book which has it in but that's going nowhere currently. I can't remember how it's done in books by two of my fave SF authors, but I remember something called a space bee in Jaine Fenn's Hidden Empire series which reminds me of your skip buoys (but I think there was also something rather dark about them which I won't go into because spoilers! Time for a re-read, I think.

  4. Never did understand what an ansible was, exactly, but just went with it. I use photon packets that can use the jump nodes like ships do, but there is a delay. You can't just talk back and forth. It's more like waiting for an email on a slow server!

  5. Yeah, I think for most readers its like the television set analogy. They don't need to know exactly how it works, just what it does and the benefit (or the threat).

    Pippa, I hope you finish that new Keir-related installment some day. I haven't read any of Jaine Fenn's books (or those by Elizabeth Moon that Greta mentioned) not that I don't OWN several. Reading is something I'd like to put more focus on now that I've decided to back off investing so much time in ineffective promotion.

    Donna, your delayed communication scenario could probably be used to advantage in some of your plots, and kudos to you for acknowledging the difficulties of communicating over great distances in your work.


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