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Optical 'Superman' memory flies with orbiting Tesla

07 Feb 2018

State-of-the-art optical data storage technology developed by UK researchers was blasted into space as part of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch.

A radical new optical data storage technology developed in the UK is on board Elon Musk's Tesla Roadster car now in orbit around the Sun, following the widely viewed launch of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket on February 6.

Described by backers at the Arch Mission Foundation as containing “critical planetary backup” data, the technology is sometimes referred to as “5D”, or “Superman” memory. Based on laser-nanostructured glass, it is the product of research in Peter Kazansky’s laboratory at the University of Southampton’s Optoelectronics Research Centre (ORC).

Permanent human archive
Blasted into space by what is currently the world’s most powerful rocket - the Falcon Heavy is second only to the Apollo mission’s Saturn V rocket in terms of launch power – the optical payload contains the Isaac Asimov Foundation Trilogy, and is now in permanent orbit following the successful launch.

“Our goal at the Arch Mission Foundation is to permanently archive human knowledge for thousands to billions of years,” wrote the US-based non-profit organization in a medium.com blog posted shortly after the SpaceX rocket launch. “We exist to preserve and disseminate humanity’s knowledge across time and space, for the benefit of future generations.”

The foundation says it is funding research and development into new storage media and technologies, to preserve and disseminate human data and knowledge “across long distances in time and space”.

Said to be inspired by the Asimov science fiction books, The “Archs” (pronounced “arks”) are claimed to already represent the longest-lasting records of human civilization ever created - and possibly that ever will be created.

“They will last billions of years longer than the Pyramids. They may even last longer than our planet,” states the foundation on its web site. “In a million years the Archs may be the only remaining trace of our species and our civilization.”

Laser-etched data
In the future, the idea is to launch more Arch “libraries” into space, including one orbiting each of the planetary bodies of the solar system, as well as some on the surfaces of planets, asteroids, and comets.

Specific future plans include landing a lunar library on the Moon by 2020, followed by an “Earth backup” on Mars. “It will … provide colonists on Mars with a massive data set with which to seed a local Internet and Web on Mars,” suggest the Arch founders, entrepreneurs Nova Spivack and Nick Slavin.

While they and the foundation are exploring a number of different mass data storage options, including both optical and non-optical technologies, the first of the libraries is encoded with the laser-etched quartz method originating at ORC.

The UK research team behind the technology first reported its remarkable potential back in 2013, in a post-deadline paper at that year’s CLEO conference in San Jose that claimed to open the era of “unlimited lifetime data storage”.

The technique uses a femtosecond laser to encode data digitally in the form of 20 nm gratings on quartz silica glass, and in 2016 the ORC team said in a Photonics West presentation that it enabled a capacity of 360 terabytes per disk, thermal stability up to 1000°C, and an approximate lifetime of 14 billion years (at 190°C).

Digital copies
Documents of seminal significance in human history, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), Newton’s Opticks, the Magna Carta, and the Kings James Bible, have all now been saved as digital copies that ought to survive the human race.

At the closing ceremony of the International Year of Light (IYL), held in Mexico in early 2016, the ORC presented a copy of the UDHR encoded to 5D data storage to UNESCO.

The self-assembled nanostructures change the way that light travels through glass, modifying its polarization that can then be read with the combination of an optical microscope and a polarizer.

Dubbed the “Superman memory crystal” by the researchers, the information is realized in five dimensions: in size and orientation, as well as the three conventional dimensions.

“It is thrilling to think that we have created the technology to preserve documents and information and store it in space for future generations,” remarked Kazansky, now listed as a member of the Arch Mission Foundation’s “science and technology council”, at the time of the Photonics West 2016 presentation. This technology can secure the last evidence of our civilization: all we’ve learnt will not be forgotten."

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