SamTronic EtherStorage 2000

So here's the thing.

Let's say you have an electromagnetic wave of wavelength l, and you send it from where you are to a receiver a distance d away. The total number of cycles of the electromagnetic wave which will fit in that distance is d/l. Using ordinary amplitude modulation, you can therefore fit d/l bits of data in that gap.

If d is something like the diameter of the orbit of Neptune, about 10,000,000,000 kilometres, and l is the wavelength of a typical X-ray, about 1 nanometre, then that number is of the order of ten billion billion bits. Or more! It would depend on how you modulate the signal.

In other words, if you send two probes to roughly opposite ends of the Solar System, and equip one of them with a powerful X-ray laser and the other with a sensitive receiver, you will find that it is possible to fit something like a billion gigabytes in the gap between your two probes. In the ether.

Now the clever bit. Because the information is in transit, there is no reason why the satellites need to have any actual hard storage of their own. If you make it so that each satellite has paired receiver and transmitter, you can program each one to receive the signal, amplify it hugely and transmit it back in the opposite direction, without performing any kind of operation on the signal or storing any part of it (outside of solid-state memory).

You just stored an exabyte of data in hard vacuum using two passive space probes! Neat!


Obviously the complete length of a round trip could be increased just by adding more probes at other points in the solar system. A problem could arise if the signals began to interfere with each other but modifying the frequency slightly for distinct probe pairs would prevent this; each probe would listen on one frequency and transmit on another. This would also allow the probes to duplicate each other's efforts, adding hardware redundancy in case one is destroyed.


The major advantage of this system is that there are no hard drives involved. However, you still need a lot of solid-state processing power and a lot of energy to drive that processing. The probes would need to be located near the Sun, perhaps, to draw solar power, so they couldn't be out by Neptune. This would reduce the distance apart they could be placed. Possibly arrange a few dozen probes in a star-like constellation?

Discussion (17)

2009-09-12 17:59:46 by KWD:

The same can be said for all methods of transferring information at light speed or less. (i.e. All of them.) You could wrap a fiber optic cable around the earth and store a good bit of information in there. This method could also be used as a time-capsule type thing. If you had a repeater/reflector 50 light years away from the sun, and a few in orbit, you could transmit a gigantic amounts of important information that would really help humanity out in case something went wrong here on earth. Every 100 years anyone with a receiver could get vital information. (How to make antibiotics, make insulin, etc.)

2009-09-12 19:14:03 by Val:

If you don't have the technological level to make antibiotics and insulin, I'm pretty certain you will be unable to receive the signal, and the protocol used to understand it will be a lot more easily forgotten then the above mentioned information, or you even forgot about the existence of the signal.

2009-09-12 21:33:09 by Paradoxia:

This reminds me of Valuable Humans In Transit, there human minds were being stored in the vacuum, were they not?

2009-09-13 02:28:54 by Thrack:

Cool idea, though of course it can take a while to receive any given piece of information. This certainly doesn't allow for random access but it could be a good method for keeping records of everything (important events, social and governmental structures, maps, art, and other things that future historians and other people would want to know but may have been forgotten by civilization) in a form that cannot be destroyed by people in wars and such. (They can still destroy the receiver but with sufficient redundancy a new one can be built before a significant amount of information is lost.) KWD's suggestion of storing technological knowledge in case it is forgotten would also work equally well. In response to Val's comment; losing the ability to receive the signal or forgetting it exists is certainly possible but a universal means of interpreting it could be used similar to how the records on the Voyager probes are written; thereby solving one of your three stated problems. To Paradoxia, Yes, the only difference is that they don't have a receiver. At least not yet (and possibly not ever; what a climax that would be for the story).

2009-09-13 03:22:13 by Ray:

There would need to be several satellites for redundancy simply to make it practical- as any object,(e.g. asteroid, debris, planet?) passes through that field, data is lost. Also, the time it takes to access any one piece of data makes it good only for archiving purposes, as opposed to that of a regular PC.

2009-09-13 06:18:27 by David:

In fact, a variation of this exact idea was used for some of the first computer memories ever built. UNIVAC didn't store data electronically, everything was recorded as a series of acoustic pulses flying through mercury-filled tubes at 3,000 miles per hour.

2009-09-13 17:32:11 by someguy:

Quite a coincidence, I was (like, just this second, honest, man!) thinking about how one might design a system to store information "in the cloud" by constantly routing things around a network without ever "landing" it anywhere (which I realise is a rather loaded concept anyway, since some routers /will/ by necessity temporarily store data in a manner which could be considered "landed". I do believe it's been suggested before that if we ever have FTL technology, we could store a practically unlimited stream of data by simply broadcasting it out into the void, and going off to however far away you need to in order to retrieve it, whenever you want. (I think some have suggested doing this /now/, on the assumption that FTL _could_ be developed someday)

2009-09-14 00:47:47 by davidrhoskin:

2009-09-14 22:18:40 by Aegeus:

I was worried about it not being random access. To get to a particular byte in your storage requires you to wait for light to travel the diameter of neptune, in the worst case. However, it works out to ~33 seconds. Not bad! The only other issue is reliability. If the power goes out on your satellite, your data is gone. Still, redundancy helps with that.

2009-09-15 05:49:22 by Daniel:

You mentioned having successive satellites use different wavelengths so they don't interfere. Why not just have the original satellites use multiple wavelengths, so it can hold more than one set of data? You'd be able to hold the same amount of data, but would only ever need two satellites. You could just use a ground base and a satellite. If you're going to be retrieving this information from the ground, that would work as well anyway. Too bad we don't live near a black hole. Then we could just orbit the light around it, and we wouldn't even need a satellite. How much would this method cost? I have a feeling hard drives are cheaper.

2009-09-15 07:09:14 by Crysm:

@Aegeus: I'm not sure what figures you're using. Some quick Googling and math shows me 0.165 seconds transit time (30775mi/C) for an array with a diameter of Neptune and 8.3 hours (60AU/C) for an array with a diameter of Neptune's orbit. There's a pretty significant delay on the latter, and a storage limitation on the former: ((30771mi)/(1 nm)) bits = 5.5 petabytes, as compared to the 100 exabyte figure Sam gave. My main concern with a system like this is interference. What do you do when some cosmic event (for example, the 11 year high in sunspot activity for our sun) sends a burst of EM radiation near the band you're using to transmit data and fills your receiver with garbage? The impact could be lessened with redundancy, but in order to repair the degraded data stream you'd have to sync it up with the backup, necessitating some kind of hard storage. Could be a problem if your storage for doing so is limited and the disruption was fairly long. Also, traditional hard drive storage is almost certainly cheaper, but not as cool of a science project.

2009-09-20 18:28:55 by doomsought:

With the concern of any object interfering in the line of sight making the idea very bad, I'd say use artificial diamonds would be a better idea, just figure out how to produce thin sheets low quality diamond lattice, carve up a few atom thick piece of iron and sandwich it between the diamond for a few years. all done in a vacuum, the cold welded sheets will survive just about anything. Just add an index and a few sheets that cross reference a few dozen languages and it will survive for the ages. (include several computer codes from along with compilers all the way down to binaries along with diagrams of the logic chips that use them, and several scale translations using the speed of light and real size of the sheets as ultimate fall backs for translation.)

2009-09-20 21:34:10 by qntm:

I have to say, all of you complaining about line of sight being lost obviously have absolutely no clue about the actual size of the solar system. When was the last time an asteroid stopped anyone from looking at a distant star? Ever?

2009-10-13 06:56:45 by Dave:

It appears I'm a bit late to the party, but here's the problem with FTL-travel data storage: intensity drops off as 1/r^2, so you lose your signal in the cosmic background noise after not too many kiloyears. This is also why Omicron Persei 8 is not going to be getting "I Love Lucy" anytime soon.

2009-10-13 09:17:13 by qntm:

Which is why each node amplifies the signal before transmitting it onwards.

2009-10-15 02:57:46 by webmaren:

I don't think you could hit your theoretical data limit, not across such large distances. Some data redundancy would have to be factored in. This could be compensated for by compression methods, but then you have to make the compression redundant as well. You also aren't storing the information in the vacuum. You're storing it in the frequency of light, because now you can't use that frequency in that area.

2012-03-29 04:51:57 by Rolf:

Actually like others said there is many ways to do it, but imho the slower the data travels, the better. If you manage to make some X media that light only travels at one meter a second... You could potentially store truly massive amount of data in single wound up 1 KM long length of this X media. Of course, it would take 1000 seconds per half of round trip, but hey if you really needs all that storage space...

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