NASA has instructed Nokia to establish a reliable 4G network on the surface of the Moon.
From connecting offshore oil platforms and underground mines, to streaming live climbing to 5,200 feet above Mount Everest, 4G networks are already capable of reaching some of the most remote places on the planet. Now technology is preparing for its next, extraterrestrial challenge – connecting the Moon. NASA plans to establish a sustainable human presence on the Moon by the end of the decade as part of its Artemis program, and with such a project inevitably comes a multitude of logistical problems. But while food, sleep, or the design of a spacesuit should come to mind first, proper communication is equally important for life in space.
That’s why last year NASA approached leading telecommunications supplier Nokia with an unusual request: to design a system that would establish a 4G network for future moon astronauts to use. 4G networks – and the LTE technology that supports them – have proven their resilience back on Earth. The idea of a space equipped with the Internet is not new. For example, astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) have been using Wi-Fi since 2008, and now they can even connect their spacesuits to a network to stream videos from space, communicate with other vehicles or facilitate docking procedures. NASA has also developed protected software that enables communication between space and the Earth, which requires a wide network of antennas set up around the world.
Nokia’s option is slightly different in that the company had the task of establishing a local network on the Moon, which will extend approximately five kilometers, in order to enable communication between astronauts and equipment on the ground. In their personal lives, astronauts have smartphones – so when they go into space, why not have access to the same opportunities for communication and collaboration? With the space equivalents of smartphones and devices connecting to a local 4G / LTE network based on the moon, astronauts would benefit from higher bandwidth, less latency and greater range than with a Wi-Fi network. The network will download a variety of data transfer applications, from conventional voice and video communications to remote lunar control, real-time navigation and streaming high-definition video.
Although for now NASA is mainly considering using lunar 4G for experiments such as remote rover driving to more distant locations, in the near future, however, the focus remains on making the technology work reliably as part of the first mission planned for 2022 to test technology readiness. and confirmed some of the key applications before Nokia’s 4G infrastructure is such that it can be used by astronauts in the future. To transport 4G technology to the Moon, Nokia is collaborating with the autonomous spacecraft company Intuitive Machines, which is building a lunar lander to transmit an LTE communications system through space and securely delivering network equipment to the lunar surface. Nokia will equip the Lender Intuitive Machine with an LTE base station similar to those found in terrestrial 4G networks, which will be self-configured by setup – but in this case the station will be a compact unit that integrates several network components, such as evolved packet functionality. core (EPC) and RF antennas. The Lander will then deploy a rover to ride with user equipment: The equivalent of a smartphone, but made for space conditions – and an omnidirectional antenna that will effectively establish 4G connectivity. The satellite link will then be used by the lander to communicate with mission control on Earth, from where commands will be sent and network equipment will be remotely controlled.
Therefore, at first glance, the procedure sounds simple and quite similar to setting up a conventional network. However, space constraints mean that every detail must be carefully planned. The first is launch and landing. The system must be mechanically robust for launch and landing, to withstand shocks, vibrations, acceleration and all mechanical stresses arising from its placement in space. Furthermore, the system must be prepared for extreme temperature variations of space, as well as the characteristics of the terrain that are specific to the Moon. There is also the question of size, weight and power, which should be reduced to a minimum when going into space. It is understood that the system goes through all kinds of rigorous testing.