Nokia has selected a particularly challenging site for an upcoming network deployment: a place where temperatures range from 250 degrees to -208 degrees Fahrenheit, and there is no air at all to breathe. But on the plus side, the lack of atmosphere means there are no clouds to hinder power generation from the solar panels of this future cell site.
Nokias plan to put a mobile network on the moon may seem like a publicity stunt the size of Elon Musk. But the lunar LTE’s ambitions come with a NASA contract to solve a real alien problem: Existing data systems won’t scale as more and more devices — and one day, humans — operate. about 239,000 miles away from the earth and its typical communication nodes.
“We know we need more than the communication we have now,” said Thierry Klein, president of Bell Labs Solutions Research at Nokia Bell Labs. In 2020, NASA Nokia awarded $14.1 million “Tipping Point” contract to develop and deploy a test LTE system that could pave the way to a lunar network for use by astronauts living and working on the moon and in orbit around the moon as part of NASA’s Artemis project.
“Most connections from the moon are direct-to-Earth, which has worked well with our current space network infrastructure and the number and type of lunar missions,” Jason Mitchell, director of NASA’s SCaN Advanced Communications and Navigation Technology division, said in an email. . But that legacy system won’t keep up with the space agency’s ambitions for a longer-term, scaled-up presence on the moon — and, ultimately, Mars.
“Link management is going to be a big challenge,” he explains. “So we need a solution to scale and to smartly flow data where it needs to go, i.e. not all the data has to come back to Earth.”
However, Nokia is starting on a much smaller scale than a moon base. The first off-Earth cell site will fit on the Nova-C compact automated lander that the Houston space startup Intuitive machines plans to launch next summer on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket as part of his IM-2 mission– who will also provide a small rover that will use this network to talk to the lander.
“We supply all parts,” says Klein. “We provide the terminal that goes on the rover, the antenna that goes on the rover, the fully integrated network equipment that goes on the Nova-C lander.”
He cites better throughput as the most immediate upgrade, and predicts a performance of 50 Mbps to about 3 miles away on a 1.8 GHz frequency that Bell Labs has chosen to reduce interference with radio astronomy, among other things.
Klein says the networking equipment attached to the side of the Nova-C is about the size of a deep-dish pizza box and contains two redundant units.
“The starting point is a commercial small mobile product from Nokia,” says Klein. “We have made many maintenance, operational and restart adjustments,” including software hardening to resist radiation interference.
The receiver on the rover, meanwhile, is about the size of two iPhones stacked on top of each other.
And why only 4G instead of 5G?
“When we started this project, it was a few years ago,” says Klein. “From our perspective, 4G was definitely the right starting point to validate this technology.”
Success on IM-2, Klein says, “should open the door and confirm that we can do this.” Future missions could bring multi-node networks, including 5G, to future missions.
As NASA’s Mitchell writes, this Tipping Point project provides “the first steps on a potential path to commercial service capabilities on the moon.”
Land-bound users will also benefit from this, Klein predicts.
“With all the things we’ve had to do for the equipment on the moon, we’ve also learned lessons that we can bring back to Earth’s environment,” he says. “When you think of a mine or an oil rig or a remote wind farm, there are a lot of extreme industrial environments on Earth.”