NASA currently controls its deep space missions through a network of huge satellite dishes in California, Spain and Australia known as the Deep Space Network (DSN). Even the Voyager 1 probe relies on these channels to beam data back to Earth as it careers away into space.
But traffic on the network is growing fast, at a rate that the current set-up can't handle. Two new dishes are being built in Australia at the moment to cope with the extra data, but a researcher from University of Southern California has proposed a slightly more radical solution to the problem.
In a presentation to the AIAA Space conference in Pasadena, California, last Thursday, Ouliang Chang suggested that one way to ease the strain would be to build a supercomputer and accompanying radio dishes on the moon. This lunar supercomputer would not only ease the load on terrestrial mission control infrastructure, it would also provide computational power for the "first phase of lunar industrial and settlement development".
Chang suggests that a lunar supercomputer ought to be built on the far side of the moon, set in a deep crater near a pole. This would protect it somewhat from the moon's extreme temperature swings, and might let it tap polar water ice for cooling.
As well as boosting humanity's space-borne communication abilities, the USC presentation also suggests that the moon-based dishes could work in unison with those on Earth to perform very-long-baseline interferometry, which allows multiple telescopes to be combined to emulate one huge telescope.
The challenge of building anything on the moon is clearly high,but the rise of modular data centres may make the IT side of things a little easier. Companies like HP and IBM now build blocks of data centre which can be plugged together on location to provide computing power. Shipping these to the moon would likely be easier than assembling an entire supercomputer on site.
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