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4G on the Moon: One Small Leap, One Giant Step

Nokia Bell Labs and NASA team up to bring wireless networks to the moon

2 min read
NASA astronaut landing on the moon.
Illustration: NASA

Standing up a 4G/LTE network might seem well below the pay grade of a legendary innovation hub like Nokia Bell Labs. However, standing up that same network onthe moon is another matter. 

Nokia and 13 other companies — including SpaceX and Lockheed-Martin — have won five-year contracts totaling over US$ 370 million from NASA to demonstrate key infrastructure technologies on the lunar surface. All of which is part of NASA’s Artemis program to return humans to the moon.

NASA also wants the moon to be a stepping stone for further explorations in the solar system, beginning with Mars.

For that, says L.K. Kubendran, lead for commercial space technology partnerships, a lunar outpost would need, at the very least, power, shelter, and a way to communicate.

And the moon’s 4G network will not only be carrying voice and data signals like those found in terrestrial applications, it’ll also be handling remote operations like controlling lunar rovers from a distance. The antennas and base stations will need to be ruggedized for the harsh, radiation-filled lunar environment. Plus, over the course of a typical lunar day-night cycle (28 earth days), the network infrastructure will face temperature extremes of over 250ºC from sunlight to shadow. Of course, every piece of hardware in the network must first be transported to the moon, too. 

“The equipment needs to be hardened for environmental stresses such as vibration, shock and acceleration, especially during launch and landing procedures, and the harsh conditions experienced in space and on the lunar surface,” says Thierry Klein, head of the Enterprise & Industrial Automation Lab, Nokia Bell Labs. 

Oddly enough, it’ll probably all work better on the moon, too. 

“The propagation model will be different,” explains Dola Saha, assistant professor in Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University at Albany, SUNY. She adds that the lack of atmosphere as well as the absence of typical terrestrial obstructions like trees and buildings will likely mean better signal propagation. 

To ferry the equipment for their lunar 4G network, Nokia will be collaborating with Intuitive Machines — who’s also developing a lunar ice drill for the moon’s south pole. “Intuitive Machines is building a rover that they want to land on the moon in late 2022,” says Kubendran. That rover mission now seems likely to be the rocket that’ll begin hauling 4G infrastructure to the lunar surface.    

For all the technological innovation a lunar 4G network might bring about, its signals could unfortunately also mean bad news for radio astronomy. Radio telescopes are notoriously vulnerable to interference (a.k.a. radio frequency interference, or RFI). For instance, a stray phone signal from Mars carries power enough to interfere with the Jodrell Bank radio observatory in Manchester, U.K. So, asks Emma Alexander, an astrophysicist writing for The Conversation, “how would it fare with an entire 4G network on the moon?”

That depends, says Saha. 

“Depends on which frequencies you’re using, and…the side lobes and…filters [at] the front end of the of these networks,” Saha says. On Earth, she continues, there are so many applications that the FCC in the US, and corresponding bodies in other countries, allocate frequencies to each of them. 

“RFI can be mitigated at the source with appropriate shielding and precision in the emission of signals,” Alexander writes. “Astronomers are constantly developing strategies to cut RFI from their data. But this increasingly relies on the goodwill of private companies.” As well as regulations by governments, she adds, looking to shield earthly radio telescopes from human-generated interference from above. 

The Conversation (0)

How the FCC Settles Radio-Spectrum Turf Wars

Remember the 5G-airport controversy? Here’s how such disputes play out

11 min read
This photo shows a man in the basket of a cherry picker working on an antenna as an airliner passes overhead.

The airline and cellular-phone industries have been at loggerheads over the possibility that 5G transmissions from antennas such as this one, located at Los Angeles International Airport, could interfere with the radar altimeters used in aircraft.

Patrick T. Fallon/AFP/Getty Images
Blue

You’ve no doubt seen the scary headlines: Will 5G Cause Planes to Crash? They appeared late last year, after the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration warned that new 5G services from AT&T and Verizon might interfere with the radar altimeters that airplane pilots rely on to land safely. Not true, said AT&T and Verizon, with the backing of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, which had authorized 5G. The altimeters are safe, they maintained. Air travelers didn’t know what to believe.

Another recent FCC decision had also created a controversy about public safety: okaying Wi-Fi devices in a 6-gigahertz frequency band long used by point-to-point microwave systems to carry safety-critical data. The microwave operators predicted that the Wi-Fi devices would disrupt their systems; the Wi-Fi interests insisted they would not. (As an attorney, I represented a microwave-industry group in the ensuing legal dispute.)

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