In Honor of May the Fourth, Let’s Talk About the Internet in Space

A decorative image showing a satellite and the Backblaze logo on a cloud in space.

It is time, once again, to celebrate the things that bring us together as tech and sci-fi lovers of the world. Today, to mark the upcoming high holiday, May the Fourth, we’re bridging our current reality to that time long ago in a galaxy far, far away by discussing the important issues: How in the world are we expected to survive in space without good internet? 

Maybe it’s just me, but it seems absurd that the Death Star blueprints had to be literally carried off a spaceship on what’s essentially an external hard drive when the Jedi Council (RIP) could make perfect holographic representations of themselves from across the galaxy. Sure, you can argue that making an off-site copy and sneaking it out was the most covert way to go about it, but didn’t some of those characters in Rogue One die next to a giant antenna? One powerful enough that it controlled traffic into and out of the planet? Why did they have to transmit the plans to the closest battleship when, in theory, they could have sent them anywhere? 

Never fear folks, we are here with what we think, based on a fair amount of research and our own humble opinions, are the answers. The truth is that current and future space internet still requires a good bit of hardware and networking. Let’s talk about where we’re at today, where we could be in the near future, and why the Rebel Scum may have, in fact, needed to run faster than Darth Vader, sacrificing all those lives, to get the Death Star schematics out of the sector.

How Do We Currently Move Data Through Space?

The internet, as we know and love it, is largely a function of hardware. To simplify things to their most base definition, the internet is a network of all the networks on the planet. Key word there, folks: planet. We use fiber optic cables to connect things on our terrestrial plane. What happens when we want to take things to space? 

We have a variety of telecommunications operations that allow us to move data through space, but they’re nowhere near as fast as our fiber-optic cables, especially with recent advancements in fiber transmission. To make our space communications that fast, we’d need analogous hardware and/or scientific advancements in some very cool research areas. 

For today’s conversation, here are the basics: when you transmit data (via any medium, not just through space), you convert it to a format computers can read, namely 0s and 1s. Typically we represent those values by modulating or fluctuating different types of electromagnetic waves. Currently the most prevalent form of data transmission in space is radio, and lasers are a developing, but usable technology.

An image from the European Southern Observatory showing lasers guiding a high-powered telescope.
Frickin’ lasers. Source. 

Our Earth-based organizations move data through space both near and far using different networks of satellites and listening technology. Both use a satellite system called the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TRDS), which orbits Earth at a far enough range that relay points are nearly always visible to spacecraft like the International Space Station (ISS).

As you get further out into deep space, you can beam your signal directly to Earth—you just have a smaller window of time where orbits are aligned to make that possible. In that case, rovers stationed on other planets might co-opt other orbiters to relay signals back to Earth. The only problem there is that those orbiters typically have a scientific mission of their own, which means that the relay orbiter has to make a choice about what traffic is prioritized. These things also signal what space internet could be in the future: a network of relay satellites that transfer data planet to planet.  

And, while networking on Earth is designed for and assumes real-time responses, scientists are working on Delay-Tolerant Networking (DTN) which is designed to handle significant delays and optimize routing based on that information. It’s not yet mainstream, but DTN has been successfully demonstrated on several missions, including on NASA’s Curiosity mission and the European Space Agency (ESA) Rosetta comet mission. 

Yeah, But What Does Star Wars Use?

We see a couple of types of communications networks in the Star Wars films, and more in the non-canonical expanded universe: 

  • Holonet: This is a galaxy-wide communication network mentioned in the films. It’s likely a complex system of satellites, relays, and subspace transceivers that facilitate rapid data transfer. This is similar to what we’re using and building today. 
  • Subspace: While primarily used for faster-than-light travel, subspace might also be used for transmitting information. Subspace is a fictional realm that allows hyperspace travel, and it’s possible that communication signals could piggyback on this network for faster travel times. 
  • Hyperspace Communication Droids: Legends lore (non-canon Star Wars material) mentions these specialized droids that could transmit messages via hyperspace, achieving near-instantaneous communication.

Since the last two depend on the fictional subspace zone, we’re really just considering the Holonet today. And, that works largely like our current technology, though they obviously have more satellites and relays to work with. That’s good news for our little thought experiment—we can look at file transmission times on our current Mars missions to get some analogous numbers.

Mars Transmission Times & File Sizes

Okay folks, now that the science is out of the way, let’s get down to brass tacks. Why was it possibly faster to move the Death Star plans via external storage than just transmitting them out once the planetary shields had been lifted? That answer depends on transmission times and file size. I’ll talk about transmission times first. 

The current technology we use to communicate with Mars has a few different transmission times we can work with: 

  • Radio, low-gain antenna: Up to a few kilobits per second (kbps)
  • Radio, high-gain antenna: Up to several megabits per second (Mpbs)
  • Laser, standard communications systems: Up to 10 gigabits per second (Gbps)
  • Laser, advanced systems under development: In development, but 10s of Gbps 

For our purposes, let’s go ahead and choose two and use a 10GB file as an example. The basic transmission time formula is: 

Transmission time = file size / data rate

Assuming radio waves and a high-gain antenna:

Transmission time = (10GB * 8 bits) / (1Mbps) = 80,000 seconds, or about 22 hours

Assuming laser communications with a standard system:

Transmission time = (10GB * 8 bits) / (10Gbps) = 8 seconds

So, How Big Were the Death Star Files?

We have two main canonical sources of truth we can use to infer the file size of the Death Star schematics: A New Hope and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. (The plans were discussed in the Clone Wars, but not in detail.) Full disclosure: I used AI tools to assist with our file size estimations. 

A New Hope

In the OG, we get a glimpse of the plans the rebels have smuggled out as they plan to attack the Death Star, and we can use these to make some assumptions about file size. Interestingly, these plans were actually created for the movie by a few scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Labs (JPL), and they were originally credited in the film.

As easy as shooting womp rats.

Factors to consider about file size:

  • Visual Complexity: The schematics we see on the holographic projectors show detailed technical diagrams with various sections, labels, and annotations.
  • Color Depth: While the movie doesn’t definitively show color, for the sake of estimation, let’s assume the plans are grayscale (requiring 1 byte per pixel).
  • Resolution: Estimating the exact resolution from the movie is difficult. However, considering the detail visible on screen and the technology of the time (1977), a conservative guess might be a resolution similar to standard definition video (around 480p).

Calculating File Size—A Conservative Estimate

The formula for calculating file size per image is:

File size per image = Width x Height x Color Depth

Let’s assume the Death Star plans are displayed on a holographic projector with a resolution of 640 x 480 pixels (a common standard definition resolution). If they are grayscale images, they would require 1 byte per pixel for color depth, so:

640 pixels * 480 pixels * 1 byte/pixel = 307,200 bytes per image

However, the plans likely consist of multiple schematics and blueprints. In the movie, we see various sections and scrolling text, suggesting a considerable amount of information.

The formula for calculating total file size is:

Total file size = File size per image * Number of images

Let’s assume the Death Star plans consist of a total of 100 grayscale images (a very rough estimate), so:

Total file size = 307,200 bytes/image * 100 images Total file size = 30,720,000 bytes

1MB is equal to 1,048,576 bytes, so that’s 29.3MB (30,720,000 bytes / 1,048,576 bytes/MB).

Remember, this is a very rough estimate.

The actual file size could be much larger or smaller depending on factors like:

  • Compression: The Death Star technology might utilize advanced data compression techniques, significantly reducing the file size.
  • Vector Graphics: If the plans are stored as vector graphics (scalable images), the file size would be smaller compared to bitmaps (storing pixel information).
  • Additional Data: The data card might contain additional information beyond visual schematics, like text descriptions, material specifications, etc., which could increase the file size.

Taking everything into account, a reasonable guess for the Death Star plans file size in Star Wars: A New Hope could be in the ballpark of 20 to 50 megabytes. This is enough to hold a significant amount of technical data but still fit on a reasonably sized data card for the time period the movie depicts (1977).

Rogue One

In Rogue One, we don’t actually see the plans in detail like we do in A New Hope, but we do have a short clip showing digital blueprints. Based on what we can glean from that and other newer, canonical sources, which employ 3D holograms, here’s a revised estimate for the Death Star schematics file size:

Factors to consider about file size:

  • Data Complexity: Rogue One reveals plans that include detailed schematics, technical readouts, and potentially 3D models. These elements significantly increase the file size compared to our previous estimate based on static images.
  • 3D Model Complexity: The size of 3D models depends on the level of detail. High-resolution models with intricate textures would require more data than simpler ones.
  • Data Hierarchy: The plans likely involve a layered structure, with overviews and deep dives into specific sections. This adds to the overall file size.
  • Compression: The presence of data compression is unknown. Compression algorithms can significantly reduce file size, but the effectiveness depends on the data type.
Gotta love a data center.

Estimated Range:

Given these factors, here’s a possible range for the Death Star schematics:

  • Low-End Estimate (100s of GB):
    • Moderately complex 3D models.
    • Some level of data compression.
    • Focus on essential schematics and technical data.
  • High-End Estimate (Low Single-Digit TB):
    • Highly detailed 3D models encompassing the entire Death Star.
    • Limited or no data compression.
    • Extensive data beyond core schematics, including maintenance procedures, weapon system details, etc.

Final Call?

Sure, we don’t know if data storage techniques are different in the Star Wars universe, and sure, the difference between technology in 1977 vs. 2016 gives sci-fi writers are a lot more to work with, but considering the complexity of the Death Star and the variety of data hinted at in Rogue One, the schematics file size likely falls somewhere between hundreds of gigabytes to a low single-digit terabyte. Frankly, despite the New Hope plans being our original introduction to the universe, this range is more realistic for a project of such immense scale. 

Of course, with a file size in the 100s of GBs or low TBs, it makes a lot more sense why the Rebels didn’t attempt to transmit the files much, much further away. We know from the movie that the Death Star plans were on a relatively isolated planet in an Imperial-controlled quadrant, and who knows how large quadrants are. 

For the sake of argument, let’s say the Death Star schematics were 1TB and there’s a safe planet at the equivalent distance of Mars. Transmitting the files via radio with a high-gain antenna would take about 2330 hours, and transmitting via laser would take 217 hours. 

With that in mind, even though it’s pretty old school, it was probably faster to put the files on a drive on a spaceship, and then have that spaceship get those files where they needed to go (you know, not accounting for misadventures). 

Always Have a Backup: Is a Droid the Safest Way to Transmit Files?

The most confusing part of this whole discussion is why, once they were past the “Darth Vader is attempting to murder us” part, they didn’t make several copies of the data and distribute it to various, separate entities. The urgency of the mad rush of Luke trying to reach the Rebels is compelling and all, but also an excellent reason you should always have a geographically separated backup. R2-D2’s badassery notwithstanding, the fate of the universe should have some redundancy.

If It Works, It Works

Hey, in the end, we really can’t complain. Luke got the files to Leia; Leia goes on to be instrumental in the Rebel victories against not one, but two Death Stars, and we all just had to endure the dark times of the prequels before we got the compelling story of Rogue One. Cheers, Star Wars fans, and May the Fourth be with you.


About Stephanie Doyle

Stephanie is the Associate Editor & Writer at Backblaze. She specializes in taking complex topics and writing relatable, engaging, and user-friendly content. You can most often find her reading in public places, and can connect with her on LinkedIn.