The freezing void of space stretches out above us when we glance at the night sky. Humanity has been attempting to plumb its depths and learn its secrets for millennia.
Of course, with modern technology we are able to do more than ever before and the Deep Space Network, which is a global organisation that records data from various space missions, has been collecting vast amounts of information in order to help expand our understanding of the great unknown.
As you might imagine, the problem faced by this network is that the amount of data it has to deal with is becoming increasingly vast and scientists at NASA have been warning about an eventual overload for over half a decade.
All of the congestion is caused by the information drawn from 13 antennas arrayed at locations across the globe which are used to receive information beamed back to Earth by various space probes that are millions of miles away.
While it is relatively simple to store large amounts of data, even though it is expensive, the problems come when you need to analyse it all and make sure that it is kept in a very safe, secure location.
The solution to all of these problems has been proposed by Ouliang Chang, who is a postgraduate student at the University of Southern California in the US. He believes that a supercomputer should be built on the Moon, allowing for the storage and big data analysis of all the information which is currently handled terrestrially by the Deep Space Network.
The costs and logistics of building a data centre on the Moon are quite staggering, as you might imagine. Getting 450 grams of equipment out of the Earth’s atmosphere and taking it to our closest orbiting body costs £31,000, so Chang believes that the total cost of the project would be anywhere from £6 billion to £12 billion or more. You would also need to factor in the additional expense of setting up a separate base on the Moon, since the data centre could not exist in isolation.
Chang believes that the best place to build the facility would be close to one of the Moon’s poles, since this would put it in a location where exterior temperatures are often lower than minus 200 degrees Celsius, which would allow for easy cooling of the components using water which could also be sourced on the moon.
Powering the whole big data set-up would be the next challenge, but Chang posits that this would be best done using a nuclear reactor, while inflatable antennas would be able to receive the signals from deep space and there would be none of the electromagnetic interference that plays havoc inside of Earth’s atmosphere to worry about.
When it comes to getting data back to scientists based on our planet, this could be achieved using laser networking. An MIT project hopes to create a connection that operates at an impressive 622Mbps harnessing laser technology, which would be ideally suited to communications between the Moon and Earth.
The biggest obstacle to creating a big data centre on the Moon is, of course, the cost. With the current global economic slump still impacting the world’s richest countries, there is very little investment to be found for this sort of project.
Of course, in boom times it might be easier for the US government to find tens of billions of dollars to help with funding and it would certainly be a bold statement to be the first country to build permanent structures on the moon. But at the moment it looks as if only international collaboration will help this come to fruition.
Other people have come up with the concept of creating a supercomputer on the moon in order to handle large amounts of data, although this would be a contingency against things such as terrorist attacks that could knock out Earth-bound servers rather than something aimed at gathering data from deep space.
Following the impact of the 9/11 attacks, the Lunar Data Cache concept was dreamed up by members of Space Systems Loral. This would help businesses and public-sector organisations to back up information on the Moon and the project was very much more commercial than Chang’s more recent suggestions.
The concept was mooted of helping to fund the Moon-based facility by placing advertisements on lunar rovers or televising live events involving robots moving about on the surface of the Moon, although perhaps these were never anything more than a pipe dream.
It seems inevitable that humanity will at some point create structures on the Moon and indeed further afield in our solar system. The Mars Curiosity Rover has helped to reignite public interest in space exploration and this might in turn cause politicians to re-think the dwindling provision of funding in this area. Big data still has the opportunity to go lunar and it is not a case of if, but when.