Well, it happened. The office was ringing with the sound of cheers, flags were being waved and burly, grown men dabbed tears from their eyes with tissues. It had been a long time coming, and meticulous contingency plans had been put in place to account for any possible risk or error. There had been doubters; some had said it couldn’t or even shouldn’t be done, but those with the vision knew it was going to be the marker of huge technological advancements, and as the news of success flew round the office, little could be done to temper the sheer jubilation and pride. Yes, that NASA team sure were happy when their little New Horizons device reached Pluto.
Meanwhile, IT Services at Sussex successfully moved all undergraduate and taught postgrad emails to a new system, utilising the Outlook web application which provides what we feel is a much more user friendly experience than its predecessor. It was nothing short of a significant accomplishment for the IT Services team – 7,377 user accounts were transferred in eight days (some of you have REALLY big inboxes, you know). One small step for mankind and technology, reaching the far bounds of our solar system, and a giant leap for the University of Sussex, a leap to a better email life for our students.
But it got me thinking – and before you go any further, you should know that really, all things considered, I am NOT an IT professional. (Not yet.) There are plenty of people sitting very close to me that actually do know exactly how these things work, and that’s why we have such a good IT department here at Sussex. But I don’t, and this is where my brain took me.
We email, yes? I even email the person sitting next to me sometimes. And that’s fine. Something electronic trundles down a little cable and up another little cable, there’s a ping-pong noise and an email arrives in his inbox. Then there are cables that take emails from here to my mum in Cambridgeshire in the blink of an eye, or maybe a yawn. “Yes, hold on, I’ll just email you a link to those shoes I want for my birthday. Has it arrived?” “Not yet… … … there it is.” (And then before you know it, shoes arrive – that’s a different but pretty much equally marvellous story.)
I lived abroad for a while, in the Middle East. One day our internet went down and didn’t come back for ages. The explanation went that the undersea internet cables had been cut by mistake, by a boat’s anchor. Eh?! What is this nonsense?! Undersea internet? You are out of your mind – that sea out there is nearly 2km deep. What kind of mammoth cable would do this, and who would be paying for it? No, no, my friend; you speak of nothing more than absurd fantasy; you might as well be telling me that fish pass emails on, one to the other, like a massive game of Chinese whispers. Emails are transmitted by the internet. The internet works by … er … by transmitting stuff … signals … from one thing to the other. OK, it works with fairy dust but it does not, you hear, it does NOT travel under the sea.
Only it does. Emails travel under the sea in cables that are made of those optical fibres that Virgin bleat on about so much, various types of plastic, and something that’s a bit like vaseline. And I’ve come to terms with this. I know now that optical fibres are the technological equivalent of fairy dust, and that there are kilometres of massive cables under all our seas. In fact, the only continent not linked by cable to the WWW is Antarctica. They’re special and contrary down there (it’s actually something to do with all the ice) and they need to use satellite systems instead.
So, this thing that has gone all the way to Pluto … it took nine years to get there. Nine years of travelling VERY fast. How on earth has this thing that has been travelling for nine years just turned round and sent some photos home? Not only that, but they say it called home. That’s how much better than us it is. It doesn’t just put up a blog post so all its friends can see what it’s doing on its travels rather than taking the time to email loved ones individually (a blog that no-one’s going to look at because they’re too jealous.) No. It called home. It went “Hey Ma! You told me to text when I arrived safe but I thought I’d call instead. Here are some awesome pics of Pluto. Wish you were here! Love you!” And then it carried on going.
But seriously now … what just happened here?! Emails are arriving from Pluto. PLUTO. At its closest, it’s just under 3 billion miles away from Earth. How is it sending us emails?! So I looked this up. Helpfully, the first thing I heard was NASA’s John Grunsfeld saying “The internet connection at Pluto is a very small pipe.” It’s a what now? Nope; I took on the underwater thing but no – there is no massive cable made of Vaseline and Fimo in space. I had to look this up. Radio. It’s travelling by radio. I have no idea how a picture travels by radio. Someone round here does though, so I can get on board with this. Mr Grunsfeld said it takes four and a half hours for signals to get between New Horizons and us here on Earth. Nine years travelling really pretty rapidly, and still only four and a half hours to send info back home. (Seriously, we’re running out of excuses for not being in touch with parents whilst backpacking in Asia, people.) However, this space gadget has so many photos at such a high resolution, that it will take 16 months for all of them to get home, through that tiny pipeline of radio signal (now I get what Grunsfeld was on about; he was going all metaphorical). Think of your old DSL, dial-up internet when it came across a website with a couple of photos on it. That’s what we’re dealing with.
Is this not mindbogglingly amazing stuff here? It is. A tiny thing takes photos of another relatively tiny thing (Pluto is smaller than a spherical version of the UK) and it’s going to spend the next year and a bit emailing pictures back home. There are some truly amazing people who can dream up and engineer some astounding notches on the human progress chart. And there are our top notch brilliant IT people here at Sussex. All progress is officially progress: your new email inbox is much more beautiful than your old email inbox and we think you’ll like it more. Plus, it takes less than four and a half hours to email your mum.
If you want more information about our new student email system, you can find some on the ITS website.
Also, if you want to know more about how astronauts get email in space, because of course you do, that’s here.
These photos came from:
here: http://images-cdn.9gag.com/photo/ajnXDz1_700b.jpg (and we REALLY appreciate the Star Wars gag)