The Whisker Comms

The concept

Space is big.  No, seriously, it’s huge!  Consider this:  light travels at 300,000,000 meters/second, and even at that mind-boggling speed, it still takes light from Sol (our local star, the sun) around 12 minutes to reach Mars, our nearest planetary neighbor!

But what about staying in contact across those vast distances?  Radio waves will take between 10 and 20 minutes to travel from Earth to Mars, depending on their respective orbital positions.  If you were to try to have a conversation with somebody on the red planet, that makes for a lot of long uncomfortable pauses.  So much for catching your significant other in time to remind her there’s no more milk left in the fridge!  Of course, the farther out you go, the longer the comm delay becomes.

This delay can be trimmed somewhat through the use of lasers, much like a fiber optic line, without the wire.  There are limitations to this method as well, though.
For one, lasers (or “pinbeams”, as the UDF refers to them) are strictly line-of-sight.  The path from transmitter to receiver must be clear of obstructions, or the beam will end up scattered or blocked altogether.
For another, pinbeams require a great deal of power in order to produce a beam intense enough to remain intact at any appreciable distance.  The space in the inner Solar system is not a pure vacuum; it is swarming with all kinds of dust and free-floating elemental molecules.  Even the solar wind itself can present a problem over enough distance.  Besides, though they’re based on light, even pinbeams quickly become impractical.
Pinbeam comm time from Gateway to Jupiter: 30 minutes.  One-way.  That’s an entire hour between asking a question and hearing the response.  Yikes!

Enter the Whisker comms.  The Whiskers are a unique, completely secure means of real-time communication, and are unaffected by distance.  Definitely sounds like something out of a science fiction story, doesn’t it?  Well, not all that long ago, cell phones would have been placed in that same category too!

In fact, the Whisker concept is based on real world physics.  It’s been discovered that quantum particles are capable of an odd behavior called “entanglement”, whereby two particles can become “entangled” with one another, and will share their states with each other, instantaneously, regardless of the distance between them.  Put simply, this means that when one particle points “up”, its entangled partner will move that way too, and vice-versa.  Interesting, but how could that possibly be used to build a long-distance live communications system?

The details

Though the details are actually quite complicated (not to mention filled with all manner of mind-numbing science nerd jargon), the basic premise is to get yourself a pair of entangled particles, and put them aside.  Now, build a pair of nifty little boxes.  Inside each box, you place a gizmo that can force a particle to point a certain way, as well as read which way it’s pointing.  Now, place one of the entangled particles within each box, and send one of the boxes someplace far off, like Mars.

At this point, you’ve got yourself a Whisker!  This basic version works much like Morse code.  When powered up, the boxes push the particles to point “down” while idle.  To send a message, you push a little button on top of the box, which causes the gizmo inside to push the entangled particle inside to point “up”.  It’s twin, all the way out on Mars, swivels to match instantaneously, and the box “reads” that and presents the change as a light or a beep on that end.  The process works both ways, too.  Instant communication!

But wait a sec!  That’s just Morse code, right?  How can the Whiskers in CotG transmit much more complex information, like sound and video, back and forth?
That’s simply a matter of bandwidth.  In other words, Morse code is (more or less) an old-school version of the digital 0’s and 1’s that our current technology relies on, and our systems can process that stream of numbers very quickly.  In the case of a quantum particle, it’s capable of assuming different states at a far more rapid rate than you could hope to exceed by pushing that simple button on the box.  So you get a computer to do the button-pushing for you instead.  The computer directs the gizmo inside, and generates a rapid stream of 0’s and 1’s that can be interpreted on the other end as whatever particular kind of content is being transmitted.  So video transmissions are possible with just a single entangled particle pair, and the bandwidth is limited only by the slowest computer involved in the exchange.

You can add additional “sidebands” by including additional entangled pairs within each unit, so it becomes possible to transmit multiple types of information simultaneously without risk of random crosstalk between the channels.  For example, you could hold a video conversation with the other side, in addition to other forms of information, such as instrument telemetry, or perhaps another separate video feed from a robotic probe, a bit like watching the ball game and an episode of Stargate: Universe at the same time!

There is a limitation of this technology, in that the Whiskers are built almost exclusively in paired assemblies, meaning that there is no such thing as a “broadcast” from one transmitter to many receivers.  The UDF overcomes this limitation by placing one side of the Whisker pairs within a central communications array, located on Haven, the UDF’s center of operations.  The Whisker array is monitored by a SARA fragment, which reads incoming transmissions and directs them to their intended destination.  If one ship wishes to communicate with another Whisker-equipped vessel, SARA transfers the incoming stream to the Whisker half matching the targeted vessel, and sends it off.  This induces a delay of a fraction of a second between the ships, but the delay will never change, no matter how far apart the vessels are from one another, and is certainly preferable to the alternative.

The UDF controls the distribution and use of the Whiskers, and the assemblies that drive them are huge, so their installations are limited to the larger ships of the fleet.  Civilian colonists also have access to dedicated intra-colony Whisker installations, which are maintained by GC-authorized staff of the Gateway Archive.

The reality

Still sound like science fiction?  It’s not.  In fact, there are now experiments underway that work on this principle!  This article talks about the Chinese and American militaries’ efforts with this technology!

Once fully developed, these real world Whiskers will enable all kinds of incredible advances in exploration.  Imagine probes that don’t require incredibly expensive and complex software to overcome unexpected hazards and situations, because an operator is capable of issuing commands and receiving feedback in real-time.  Picture a space exploration program built around robots that provide more than just a slow, grainy still camera on the scene, but rather a full-motion, high-definition, panoramic, even 3D video feed!

The possibilities are nearly endless!

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