Editor's Note: Technobabble is our occasional series looking at the more colorful sides of technology, including research-based musings on why some HQ2 finalists are more likely than others.
Productivity tanked and Elton John's "Rocket Man" blared as the world watched SpaceX successfully launch its Falcon Heavy into space on Tuesday.
"The most powerful operational rocket in the world by a factor of two," the Falcon Heavy test mission is bound for an Earth-Mars elliptical orbit around the sun, taking with it Elon Musk's "midnight-cherry Tesla Roadster" and a mannequin in a SpaceX suit named Starman.
Currently over Australia pic.twitter.com/HAya3E6OEJ— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) February 6, 2018
But also aboard the historic spacecraft is a one-inch disk encoded with Isaac Asimov's "Foundation Trilogy," which can last 14 billion years and symbolizes humanity's disaster recovery plan, an object given to SpaceX by the Arch Mission Foundation.
In order to preserve humanity's archive, the foundation is working to catalyze Big Data in space, said Nova Spivack, co-founder of The Arch Mission Foundation, in an interview with CIO Dive.
For the near-term, increasing data storage in space is "necessary and useful" in light of the modern space race, the evolution of the internet into space and the ability to work with Big Data and higher bandwidths of data in space.
So as a moon colony and regular trips to Mars become a reality, increased data storage will prove critical.
But there is a more important reason the Arch Mission is working to establish a Big Data record in space: "This is a backup and recovery project for our civilization and it's solar system scale," said Spivack. "So there's a long term benefit as well that could be useful."
Beginning as a Twitter exchange between Spivack and Musk, the Arch Mission Foundation encoded a one-inch diameter disk with three megabytes of text from Asimov, a move that was largely symbolic.
The Foundation Trilogy "inspired Elon and it also inspired us," said Spivack. "We mutually all love those books. They're about a galactic scale civilization that archives everything it knows and studies the archives. It's a very big piece of their civilization and key to their survival."
"That is basically what we're doing. We're building that foundation — or something similar to it — as described in those books."
Asimov's Foundation books should def be part of the mission. They're amazing.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 2, 2017
The science behind the tiny disk
Research labs have been hard at work designing new ways to store data, particularly in cold storage avenues where data does not necessarily need to be read or written quickly. Instead, the archive approach to Big Data is intended to store data indefinitely.
The disk aboard the Falcon Heavy is based on research from Dr. Peter Kazansky and his team at the University of Southampton in the U.K. The 5D storage technology uses quartz silica glass and a femtosecond laser to encode data on a small scale.
Even though the disks are small, they contain an incredibly large capacity. Up to 360 terabytes of data can be stored on a 3.75-inch piece of extremely durable glass, which can last millennia.
"This is a very suitable technology for space. It also happens to be the same material that spacecraft windows are made of," said Spivack. "We don't believe that cosmic rays will be able to significantly degrade the data."
In addition to text, the disks can also store analog information, such as pictures or even holograms. "So we think this is a candidate for the future of Big Data," he said.
But the Arch Mission is working with different data storage techniques as well, such as DNA storage, or molecular storage on non-living DNA.
While the first launch with SpaceX was largely symbolic, the Arch Mission is working with various groups to send large amounts of open data into space, from the Wikipedia archives to Archive.org. Placing open data sets in different locations in space will create redundancy and ensure humanity's records will not be lost.
"The notion is to situate these archive sites near and on planets in our solar system that humans visit or inhabit, as well as other objects that are important or inhabited or just simply discarded such that there are many of these," said Spivack. "Redundancy is important in a backup strategy, and that's what this is."
One question may arise, however: Is it, er, safe to send out humanity's records into space with, ya know, the whole potential extraterrestrial thing?
"Well they'd have to be in our solar system to find them," said Spivack. "We're not beaming them out to 'Diner's Club Intergalactica.' [Extraterrestrials would] already have to be here to find them and from that perspective, if that happens, that would probably be a good thing."
So long Starman, and may the fate of humanity's archives fly safely with you.