Since man first ventured to the Moon, communications technology has been brought with us and either returned home or abandoned, built bespoke for purpose, and rendered obsolete after use. As our ambitions for space have become more realised, the development of permanent lunar infrastructure has materialised.
Laurence Russell, Assistant Editor, Satellite Evolution Group
In 2018, Nokia Bell Labs, alongside Vodafone Germany and Audi, expressed intention to bring long-term evolution (LTE) services to space by installing a 4G network on the moon, enabling advanced communications, faster connections, and high-definition video streaming of the lunar landscape to aid lunar missions, and pave the way for future lunar commercialisation.
Innovative micronized technologies were theorised to make the dream a reality, resulting in space-grade hardware which weighs less than 1kg, optimized for the lunar surface, capable of withstanding extreme temperature, solar radiation, vacuum conditions, and the shock impact of launch and landing. “This project involves a radically innovative approach to the development of mobile network infrastructure,” said Hannes Ametsreiter, CEO of Vodafone Germany.
The network was planned to be put to the test by a pair of Audi lunar Quattro exploration vehicles set to communicate with each other and a base station located in what was then referred to as the Autonomous Landing and Navigation Module (ALINA) which would transport them to the Moon. “Whether it is meteor mining or lunar landing or Mars, we have to learn how to communicate in space,” Marcus Weldon, Chief Technology Officer of Nokia and Head of Bell Labs said at the time.
In the years since Vodafone has stepped away from the project, and Audi’s rover has been replaced by that of Intuitive Machines, who are also involved in the lunar ice drill project as part of the Polar Resources Ice Mining Experiment (PRIME-1) planned for execution in December 2022. While the collaboration lasted, many tests were conducted in vacuum chambers and a slew of demonstration equipment was delivered, forging the foundation for a more sustainable project to come.
The tipping point
In late 2020, the project was included in NASA’s Tipping Points funding program besides a dozen other companies, which led to US$14.1 million in federal investment. The scheme awarded over US$370 million to various market leaders in space technology across three topic areas: Cryogenic fluid management, lunar surface infrastructure, and closed-loop descent and landing capability demonstrations.
“NASA’s significant investment in innovative technology demonstrations, led by small and large US businesses across nine states, will expand what is possible in space and on the lunar surface,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “Together, NASA and industry are building up an array of mission-ready capabilities to support a sustainable presence on the Moon and future human missions to Mars.”
4G networking will support exploration and science missions, but alongside the other Tipping Point projects, is considered a stepping stone in the process of realising human lunar habitation, which NASA hopes to establish by 2028, beginning with the first woman on the moon in 2024 as part of Project Artemis. Those achievements will cement a foothold further fuelling efforts to reach Mars.
While original plans couldn’t factor in 5G considerations, 2020 offers a fresh perspective, allowing developers to work in the interest of comfortably upscaling to 5G when the technology becomes available for space-grade applications.
In late 2019, Nokia Bell Labs successfully tested their advanced prototype LTE BTS as part of an internally funded effort. With the help of the High Power Radio Frequency Laboratory, run by both ESA and the Valencia Space Consortium, Nokia simulated the ‘multipactor’ effect, a phenomenon in which strong radiofrequency energy generates a spike of secondary electron emissions in a vacuum, causing damage or even total loss of hardware.
Using radioactive Strontium-90 sources and ultraviolet lamps to seed low-energy electrons across three lunar temperature ranges, the experiment confirmed that Nokia’s LTE Base Station architecture does not induce the multipactor effect, making it suitable for space deployment.
Interestingly, the environment of space isn’t all adversity. Many aspects of 4G technology can be expected to operate better in an extra-terrestrial environment.
The absence of atmosphere, ground interference, elevated terrain and ground-level obstructions means that the same technology will go further on the Moon, providing an assurance of connection reliability one couldn’t expect on Earth.
In 2022, after a successful Moon landing, Nokia’s technology will connect to Intuitive Machines’ rover, establishing a cellular link, just as a phone tower would to a smartphone user, and test surface communications across short ranges up to 300m, and long ranges up to 3km.
Currently, China leads the field of lunar communications, being the only country to have sent a signal from the Moon to somewhere other than Earth; their Moon/Earth halo orbit Queqiao Relay Satellite, which was able to operate as a go-between for their ground station and Chang’e 4 on the dark side of the Moon, after it completed humanity’s first lunar soft landing, which touched down in 2019.
Perhaps slighted, NASA expressed hopes to answer China’s lunar connection fidelity in a big way. Nokia’s efforts with 4G are the first steps towards NASA’s ongoing effort in establishing the LunaNet, which hopes to gradually define protocols and standards for off-world connectivity while supporting occurring exploration missions, eventually blossoming into a Solar System Internet. An Astranet if you will.
In the next decade, cutting-edge lunar connectivity could lead to the kind of edge computing and IoT that opens doors to space virtualization, wherein space exploration vehicles can make better use of remote hardware to do their computational heavy lifting, leaving room onboard for other critical onboard processes. Realistically, this virtualization would be best delivered by hubs in a hypothetical moon base, the like of which lunar 4G paves the way for, as well as an interconnected network of lunar orbiters to provide relay services and a lunar positioning system to coordinate autonomous pathing.
“The analogy that I use,” explains NASA Exploration and Space Communications Projects Division Architect David Israel, “is that when the mobile networks started you could only get phone coverage in the city. But when you went out to the country you didn’t have coverage anymore. You didn’t need a new phone, they just needed to put base stations out there. So, the build-up of the LunaNet is very analogous to the build-up of mobile networks and the Internet.”
Because the LunaNet revolves so heavily upon interoperability standards between providers and users, it will never be owned, just like the Internet. It’s built from the ground up to serve governments, commercial and academic bodies, and eventually space tourists indiscriminately. With space companies properly connected, many applications could rapidly open up.
Unlocking the Moon as a staging area for exploration would be a game-changer. Radio astronomers have long coveted the notion of running complex observations from its surface, particularly from the dead quiet dark side, which would garner the clearest space signals ever received by human technology.
Satellite Evolution - NewSpace International - May/June 2021