As humanity seeks to place a permanent settlement on the Moon and send astronauts to Mars, contact with these future explorers and settlers will become essential. As NASA and other agencies are working on getting the internet up and running in outer space, we can turn to science fiction to help us understand what the future may hold.
As The ExpanseSeason 6 prepares to land on Amazon Prime Video on December 10th, we thought we’d take a closer look at the communications technology employed in the show.
Background: Sci-fi makes bold predictions
There has always been a history of science fiction showcasing a range of technological innovations not currently present on Earth. Often these ideas spring forth from desires – technology the writer wishes we, as a society, had. Often, the creations are conjured from ongoing research or products already invented but in drastic need of streamlining before they become ubiquitous.
We’ve seen the ability to transfer consciousness from an old body into a new, stronger body, as in John Scalzi’s Old Mans War or Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan (a series on Netflix). While this is not currently possible, is it just a matter of time before our minds can be stored and uploaded into machines or clones?
How about teleportation? Faster-than-light travel? Time travel? These are all areas of seemingly fanciful science fiction, and yet even as you read this article, money is being funneled into these areas of research. Even interstellar communication is being studied.
Communication, of course, is something we take for granted these days. The ability to talk to anyone on the planet from anywhere on the planet is as simple as reaching into your pocket and pulling out your smartphone.
Yet when Star Trek first aired in 1966, the communicator gave the crew of The Enterprise a way to do the same and was seen as a fanciful dream. The range seems near limitless, with zero lag in communications – In many episodes, the crew spoke to vessels many light-years away and had instantaneous 2-way conversations.
How does this compare to The Expanse, which is touted by many as “Hard Sci-Fi,” a category of science fiction characterized by the need for scientific accuracy and logical predictions of the future, extrapolating from current trends?
Analysis: The Expanse suggests nothing changes
The Expanse is set a few hundred years into our future. Technology has advanced, and humanity has begun to spread itself out throughout much of the solar system – Mars, the Asteroid Belt, and many of the larger moons of the gas giants.
There’s no warp speed or teleportation. To travel anywhere in space, ships must point their engines at the things they want to put behind them and then burn steadily for days to build up the speed needed to get anywhere. For the most part, while the technology to build such ships might not yet be in our hands, The Expanse feels realistic.
If you cannot teleport or jump on board a vessel going faster than light, you may need to send a message. So how about communications?
Whether on a ship, a space station, or a planet, the options for long-distance communication in The Expanse boil down to two possibilities: broadcast or tightbeam.
Broadcast: Radio waves travel at the speed of light. That’s a scientific fact and one that is not broken in The Expanse. For humanity, the limiting factor for communication is time. Once you release your message, it takes time for it to reach its destination.
For example, a message transmitted from Earth will take an average of 13 minutes to reach Mars. However, it would only take a second for a message to get from Earth to the Moon.
By its nature, a broadcasted message will be traveling out in all directions at once. This is how a message would get to any ship without knowing where they precisely were. Encryption will bring you a little privacy, but there is always the risk of a data breach.
Tightbeam: In The Expanse, a tightbeam is a message carried by laser light, aimed directly at the vessel with whom you are communicating. Tightbeams have the benefits of privacy. No one can intercept a message unless they know the origination point and its destination. However, that is also the downside to the technology – the sender would need to know precisely where the target is in relation to them to shoot a message at them.
But is it any faster? Sadly, no.
“The Expanse deals with the time delays of communicating within our solar system in a realistic way,” said Jeremy Benning, The Expanse’s lead cinematographer, in an email to The Debrief. Both radio waves and laser light are emissions of electromagnetic energy, which means that they will be traveling at the speed of light.
Given the time delay, users of the tightbeam also have the disadvantage of needing to predict where their target is going to be, meaning a course correction could result in a missed message. If you’ve read the books, you’ll fully understand the time delays and frustration this brings into communication.
The Amazon Prime show works hard to include these same time delays, but for dramatic effect, there are scenes cut to allow jumps forward in time so that the viewer does not have to wait or struggle to keep up with the conversation.
“Signals cannot travel faster than light, so our show deals with that and is often built into the storyline,” Benning explained.
If you’re watching for the first time, look out for “Delayed by…” timestamps in the corner of most of the messages they receive.
In the book, Caliban’s War and the episode of the same name (Season 2, Episode 13), the death of a protomolecule monster aboard the Rocinante near Ganymede prompts an instant response from the protomolecule on Venus. It would take over 40 minutes for a message to travel from Ganymede to Venus, implying that the protomolecule can communicate faster than light.
In the books, they realize that the protomolecule does not suffer from the same lag that human communications do. But as with all things Sci-Fi, could this be something that scientists can actively pursue and create?
Outlook: Call dodging and more voicemails
So, if we choose to trust The Expanse’s vision of the future, the good news is that we already possess the technology required to set up interplanetary communications.
Public communications between planets will most likely be broadcast to the universe by radio waves, while more sensitive information may be tightbeamed between planets or ships. Couriers seem unlikely, given the time and expense of getting a ship from A to B in the cold Expanse of our solar system.
Sadly, though, this will be a slow process. For individuals, the change in communication will be felt more than for companies and governments, who tend to make statements rather than have conversations. For the average person, phone or video conversations could be marked with minutes of silence. Friends and lovers on different planets will switch to sending each other voice or video mails, creating an emotional sense of distance as well as the physical one.
With an expected 30 minute delay between sending and receiving a message between Earth to Mars and back again, it’s doubtful that many people are going to be trying to flirt across the cosmos.
So, what is the grim reality of communication in The Expanse? Constant voicemails to check and fewer direct voice conversations. No wonder they all carry those snazzy-looking hand terminals all the time.
Science fiction technology often reflects what the author sees as our collective wants or needs. As these enter the common zeitgeist of our time, researchers and innovators strive to bring the best of them into reality. So what will the future bring? Only time will tell, but there is likely a researcher out there somewhere already working on it.
Between rock climbing, sky diving, and saving up for a ticket to space, Matt Staples loves to write. Okay, he doesn’t do any of those other things, but he does love to write. His favorite topics are anti-heroes, dystopias, crazy sci-fi, and researching side hustles for his entrepreneurial blog.