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The Final Frontier

Interstellar Hard Drive

All your precious data, everything you’ve created and every memory you’ve captured and stored, is etched on a hard disk somewhere on Earth. Back it up all you want—it won’t matter if the planet goes. The search for storage beyond the cloud.

Aga Ousseinov, Brave Old World, 2009. Courtesy the artist and Christopher Henry Gallery.

Ask any computer expert about backups, and you’ll get the same answer: You can never have too many of them.

Backups used to be the stuff of corporate IT departments. Now they’re a household necessity, like toothpaste and a kettle. If you have a computer—and let’s face it, most people do these days—you need to have some way of backing it up.

Heaven help you if you don’t. Sooner or later, the drive that stores all your memories as etchings in the medium of zeros and ones will fail. Unless you’ve cloned your memories elsewhere, they’ll be gone in an instant, the split-second it takes for a hard disk to go from trusted friend to traitorous enemy. Click-click-click, it will say, by way of an apology. By then, it’s too late.

Your memories, then. Those photos of your babies, taken just a few years ago, but already such a treasured possession. Those videos you took on your phone while travelling. Your college essays and that terrible novel you started. That other novel you started, which wasn’t quite so bad. More photos: the scanned images of your parents and aunts and uncles when they were younger. Younger than you are now. My God, they look so young.

It all seems so precious now, all that stuff. It feels like something you need to look after, for the sake of your children and grandchildren.

How about your great-grandchildren? How about two or three generations after that?

How far in future do we have to go before we start feeling detached from our own archived legacy?

Conversely: How far do we have to go into the past before we’re looking at images of strangers whose lives mean very little to us? You don’t have to go far, I think. In either direction.


The question arose one day: Just how serious about backups do you need to be to be certain—100 percent certain—that your legacy of Facebook updates and Flickr photos will survive you?

Data is only as safe as the planet it sits on. It only takes one rock, not too big, not moving that fast, to hit the Earth at a certain angle and: WHAM! Most living species are done for.

How the hell is your Twitter archive supposed to survive that?

The only way to ensure your data’s long-term survival is to organize extraterrestrial backups. That’s not as dumb as it sounds.

Dr. Lucy Rogers is an expert in space debris. Most objects orbiting Earth are debris. Space junk. They hurtle around the planet at something like 17,000 miles per hour, and there are millions of them. When you stop to think about it, it’s a miracle that anything we launch from the ground ever makes it up there in one piece.

Ask Lucy Rogers what she would do about backing up data in space, and she’s instantly full of ideas.

“You could stick it on a satellite,” she says. “But you’d need to think carefully about where you put the satellite.”

Orbit, you see, isn’t a single plane. It has depth. Or is it height? Space starts just beyond Earth’s atmosphere (just beyond 60 miles up), but then it keeps on going. Forever.

When it’s moving that fast, even something the size of a cherry is large enough to destroy your precious data backup forever.

Lucy says: “There are 20,000 space debris objects larger than a melon. There are millions more the size of a cherry, or smaller. Most of it is in what’s called Low Earth Orbit, about 400 kilometers up. So whatever you do, don’t put your data satellite there.

“When it’s moving that fast, even something the size of a cherry is large enough to destroy your precious data backup forever. So don’t bother.”

How about higher up? As high as you can go?

“Geostationary orbit is much higher, about 35,000 kilometers up. That would be a much better choice. That’s where the TV broadcasters put their satellites. Remember, they have lot more money than most of us.”

Money matters in the space business, Lucy explains. “It costs about $20,000 to put something the size of a Coke can into orbit,” she says. That gives you a new perspective on some of the extra stuff that has found its way up to the International Space Station over the years. The cameras they use to take those awesome orbital movies. That flute. Wow.

Lucy has another idea. It’s flawed, and she’s the first to admit that. But it might work.

“You could put a PC on the moon,” she says. “You could use solar panels to give it power. The main problem would be solar radiation. That’s the pulses of energy the sun spits out. We’re protected from them on Earth, because our atmosphere and magnetic field act like a shield. But out in space, or on the moon, you’re exposed to them.

“All the astronauts who walked on the moon were very lucky not to get zapped by radiation.

“You’d have to protect your PC somehow. You could leave it in a nice deep crater, so the crater’s edge would provide some protection. Or wrap it up in lead. Not a cheap plan, but possible.”

Wait, though. The whole concept of putting physical data storage in space is flawed. Why not send the data itself. Pure data. Data is as data does.

“You could try bouncing a laser beam off something large,” muses Lucy. “Maybe Jupiter.”

But Jupiter, orbital conditions permitting, is 32 to 48 light minutes away. At the most, bouncing your data up there and back again would only back it up for just under a couple of hours. There doesn’t seem to be much point.

Surely we can manipulate light to our advantage somehow?

“You could make use of gravitational lensing, I suppose. Light gets bent as it travels around objects with a very large mass, such as galaxies.”

Suddenly Lucy sounds much more animated.

“Wait, yes: If you could bend light around multiple galaxies, one after another, that you’d lined up in advance, you could eventually get the light to return to its source at a later date. Quite tricky to set up, mind you. And you’d need to send out a galaxy’s worth of light in the first place.”

A bit of web searching reveals that megacorporation Honeywell already makes something called a Satellite Data Server. When I ask them if I can buy one, they send a polite reply. This is a product they sell to the space vehicle manufacturing industry. If your satellite needs its own server, you can buy this one. They don’t mention the price, but I figure there’s not a lot of point me asking.


Nick Howes, program manager for the Faulkes Telescope and science writer for the European Space Agency, doesn’t sound terribly impressed by Honeywell’s high-tech space hard disk.

“How much storage space do you get? Sixteen terabits. That’s only two terabytes. You can buy that at your local computer shop very cheaply. In a year from now it’ll be half the price. And in another year, half the price again. We’ll soon consider it not very much.

“Also, they say it has its own radiation hardening, but how much, I wonder? Could it withstand another Carrington Event?”

Another what?

“Carrington Event. Look it up. Happened in 1859, a huge solar radiation event that knocked out the global telegraph system, because that was pretty much the only electronic system in place at the time. If it happened now, it would knock out a lot of satellites, and much more.”

That sounds absolutely terrifying, I think. But I don’t say it.

Howes continues, “No, if you want storage in space, you need something that can grow to accommodate your needs. Like an organic storage system.”

Data storage is just zeros and ones. Might it be possible, Howes and I wonder aloud, to change the state of individual “zero” and “one” molecules in a large lump of organic matter, simply by firing a laser at it? Or putting a powerful electromagnet in orbit around it? Perhaps a body of liquid might be put to use as an off-world data center.

“You could use Europa,” says Howes brightly. “Lots of liquid there.” His mention of one of Jupiter’s moons makes the hairs on the back of my neck tingle, but I think that’s a thing a lot of science-fiction geeks get.

How about a comet? I suggest. Well, the tail of one.

“No good,” he dismisses instantly. “Comets are too diffuse. They dissipate. No, an asteroid would be better. Grab yourself an asteroid. It will happily stay in whatever orbit you put it in, for billions and billions of years.”

The main problem isn’t finding some way of storing the data. It’s reading the data back again in the future.

My head’s already spinning at the thought of turning Europa into a massive hard disk, but Howes brings it to a halt with a bump.

“To be honest,” he says, “the main problem isn’t finding some way of storing the data. It’s reading the data back again in the future. Think about it—these days, we use USB and FireWire connections. But only a decade ago, people used SCSI and RS-232 to link computing devices together. How can we be sure that anyone in the distant future will be able to read the data we store?”

And will they give a damn, I wonder to myself. I don’t even give a damn about Facebook now, so I doubt any of my squidlike descendants, two billion years from now, will be terribly interested either.

Howes says: “We’d need a primer and a key. A bit like the Rosetta Stone. Some obvious means of communicating to the future that this thing we’re leaving behind is a data archive, and how they should read the data once they’ve opened it. And we’d need someone to look after it all. An archivist.”


A few days after speaking to Nick Howes, a tweet catches my attention, and in an instant I realize humanity is already sufficiently backed up. We don’t need to send our Tweets and Facebook updates to the stars, and our future squid-selves will be uninterested in our photos of that trip to Italy. All we really need to save is the most essential details: what we looked like and where we came from.

That information is already in space. Etched into a record attached to the side of each of the Voyager probes, humanity’s first and so far furthest travelled data dump is heading out of the Solar System and into whatever lies beyond. The essential details chosen for that record? Carl Sagan chose wisely. Messages from 1970s world leaders. Photographs of 1970s landscapes and animals. Music: Beethoven, Mozart, Chuck Berry singing “Johnny B. Goode.” Stuff that matters.

Powered by a blob of plutonium that should keep it going for 15 or 20 more years yet, Voyager 1 is our ambassador, our archivist, and our Rosetta Stone, hurtling through the termination shock. Every day that you and I spend dicking about on the internet, Voyager 1 travels another million miles further away. The chances of it ever being found by an alien race are slim. But if that happens, and those aliens are at least as smart as we are, they’ll find the primer that Nick Howes mentioned. On the reverse of Voyager’s golden record are the instructions for playing it: simple graphic images, designed to be unambiguous and easy to understand if you have a grasp of science and mathematics. Wordless, like assembly instructions from Ikea. There’s even the space-faring equivalent of Ikea’s ever-necessary Allen wrenches—a stylus for playing the record is attached to Voyager as well.

Voyager is small, easy to miss. Perhaps the first creatures to touch it, millions or billions of years from now, might be our own squidchildren, having finally developed the technology to leap ahead of Voyager and catch it in their squiddy space-nets.

That whole USB/SCSI data transfer thing won’t be a problem. They’ll wrap their tentacles around this dusty flat-pack message from the distant past, and follow the instructions, step by step.

And Chuck Berry will echo among the stars.

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