How satellite loops could store data – or not

If you placed a satellite a light-year from earth, could you use the data stream to store data? A brace of Reddit users have discussed the matter and come up with an answer.

satellite loops lead image
Credit: By NASA/Bill Ingalls [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Here’s one of the wackiest ideas I’ve come across in a long time. But it’s so seductive an idea—however bizarre—that I have to share it.

Reddit user Scruffy_nerf_herder poses the question: How much data could be stored in a satellite transmission?

His question revolves around the idea that satellites are way up there and the distance could allow for a kind of wireless data storage.

Hard drive in orbit

The High Earth and geosynchronous orbit is about 22,000 miles above earth. That’s about one tenth of the way to the moon. And, as you know, if you watch satellite television, there’s data getting pumped up there and then back down again, on a regular basis.

Well, what if you could loop that data somehow and use the 44,000-mile round trip to actually hold the data. Think: hard-drive in orbit.

Well, one flaw in that argument, apparent to even the most non-technical sporting-event watchers among us, has got to be that there’s only a couple of seconds in latency in that signal. So how much data could you store there?

Not much, probably.

Two seconds of some guy kicking a ball in HD isn’t much. I probably could have fit more on my first smartphone.

A light year away

But our friend Herder thinks he has a solution to this capacity crunch. He proposes sticking his satellite about a light-year from earth. That’s about 5.88 trillion miles, or 5,880,000,000,000 miles. Further, in other words.

He suggests that the satellite would be configured as a repeater and bounce signals back. He streams data to the satellite and loops it. “The travel time of the radio waves,” stores the data, he says. And you can keep adding data to the stream.

Being an optimistic Reddit user, Herder’s question is: "How much data could we store?" Not, as my question would have been, "Would it work?"

What they say

But in any case, as you might expect, there’s plenty of input from fellow Reddit users.

3dPrintedEmotion gets a rather paltry storage figure of 631 TB. He performs the calculation based on a speculative 10 Mbps stream and a round trip of two years. With about 31,557,600 seconds in a year, his arithmetic certainly works.

I think that 10 Mbps is theoretically too slow. High-capacity Ka-band ViaSat-1 has a total throughput of 140 Gbps, or 140,000 Mbps, for example.

Herder, our optimist, reckons you could compress the data too, although in his comment he does appear to be resigned to the project costing too much for the amount of data storage obtained.

Reddit user Mrdotkom isn’t as technically optimistic. He thinks you’d lose the data due to interference. If the data isn’t classically stored, parity checking can’t happen and lost packets can’t be resent.

Other naysayers include Kool_on, who estimates data retrieval to take a year, and BrunoPolaco who thinks that you’d use up all the bandwidth from the start, and that new data would interfere with the old.

My bet? Fry’s Electronics will sell you a 1 TB Western Digital drive for $60, and I’m sure would be quite delighted to sell you 631 of them.

A steal at $38,000 and likely significantly cheaper than renting the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan for the day. But probably not as much fun.

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