Storage on the Moon: Lunar Lunacy?

Startup TransOrbital is promising the ultimate disaster recovery service - on the moon

July 26, 2003

4 Min Read
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Ever wonder how you would access your data if a colossal disaster wiped out the Earth, sending even heavily guarded disaster recovery sites into oblivion? Even if you haven't, space startup TransOrbital Inc. has -- and the company says it will soon launch the mother of all disaster recovery services on the moon.

Yes, thats right. The moon. Palo Alto, Calif.-based TransOrbital says it has already secured all of the primary licenses needed to start the world’s first commercial transport service into outer space, and that it expects its TrailBlazer lunar orbiter to make the first voyage early next year. On its second mission to the moon nine months later, the company says it will send up self-healing servers and storage to enable disaster recovery and archival services.

"The moon is a very safe place," says Dennis Laurie, the company's president and CEO. "We’ll offer the ability to recover from massive disasters that might occur here on Earth, [and] we’ll provide excellent archiving capabilities for a very long time."

While Laurie insists that TransOrbital has received positive feedback from storage vendors it has approached about the idea, the industry observers Byte and Switch caught up with today were more than a little skeptical. "Right now, as soon as you mention putting data on the moon, when people quit laughing, they think you're crazy," says Evaluator Group analyst Randy Kerns. "It would seem the costs [of storage and retrieval] would be exorbitant."

Adds Data Mobility Group analyst John Webster, "I’m an avid science fiction fan. I’m not sure how practical this is, but I think it’s a great PR idea."Privately held TransOrbital, which was founded in 1998 to develop commercial opportunities on the moon, insists that its space story is more than a publicity stunt. "At first, people thought it was a little bit of a strange idea," Laurie admits. "But we’ve had a lot of interest."

The 20-employee company isn't betting its entire business on orbital data storage, however. Initially, it will transport such things as business cards, cremated human remains, and other memorabilia into space.

"When you look at the commercialization issues, you really need to be diversified," says Laurie. "We expect business to be good enough." He won’t reveal how much the company has received in funding to date, but he says he expects TransOrbital to be profitable after its very first mission. That mission is expected to cost the company just under $20 million.

TransOrbital’s Website promises that its first TrailBlazer mission will carry "personal relics, mementos, or treasures to the moon" for only $2,500 per gram. The company notes, however, that its first spacecraft is set to orbit the moon before crashing onto its surface. Therefore, "no guarantee can be made as to the state of the payload following its arrival on the surface," the Website states.

After the first mission, however, TransOrbital is promising to keep its cargo, including precious data, intact. Laurie says the company plans to send missions to the moon every six to nine months, and that it will start sending up servers and multiple terabytes of storage on its second voyage, towards the end of 2004.But finding storage vendors to resell its lunar disaster recovery and archival services may not be the easiest task in the world (or the solar system). "In general, the ability to recover information is the biggest challenge; not the ability to store it in a safe location," says EMC Corp. (NYSE: EMC) spokesman Rick Lacroix, emphasizing that he is not familiar with TransOrbital’s business plan or technology. "The most important thing is recovering the information in a rapid manner. For each hour of downtime, companies can lose millions and millions of dollars."

Pat McAnally, senior director of marketing at disaster recovery company SunGard (NYSE: SDS), notes that if TransOrbital is storing data on the moon, latency and transmission times must be considered. "You have to be back in business the same day," she says. "I’m not a rocket scientist, [but] given the distance of the moon, how are they going to do that?"

The company, which launched a test satellite last December from Kazakhstan, will send servers and storage to the moon in spacecrafts, but the data will flow back and forth via wireless connections, Laurie says.

Laurie won’t reveal what kind of storage technology the company will use, but he insists that it is top-notch and will allow customers to retrieve data just as they would normal communications. "Access will normally take 2.5 minutes because of the distance to the moon (an average of 250,000 miles each way)," he writes in an email. "However, once the process begins, the flow should be fairly seamless."

Meanwhile, on TransOrbital's first voyage, Hewlett-Packard Co. (NYSE: HPQ) will send its iPaq Pocket PCs into outer space, the companies announced last week. The devices will integrate with TrailBlazer’s systems, synchronizing and sharing data, TransOrbital says. On subsequent voyages, the company claims, the handheld PCs will be strapped to the outside of the spacecraft to send streaming video images to earth.— Eugénie Larson, Senior Editor, Byte and Switch

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