Nokia Bell Labs is deploying the first cellular network on the Moon to demonstrate that cellular technologies can provide the critical communications needs for future lunar or Martian missions.
The United States’ National Aeronautics and Space Administration has selected Nokia to participate in its Tipping Point initiative, which seeks industry-developed space technologies that can foster the development of commercial space capabilities and benefit future NASA missions.
To that end, Nokia has partnered with Intuitive Machines and Lunar Outpost for the uncrewed lunar mission called IM-2, which will land at the Moon’s south pole.
IM-2 is currently scheduled to launch within a three-month window beginning in November of 2023, but that window may shift depending on launch scheduling.
For this mission, Nokia Bell Labs has developed a low-power, compact and space-hardened version of its 4G/LTE microcell. The network is specifically designed to survive the journey to the Moon and operate under the extreme temperature, radiation and environmental conditions of the lunar surface.
The lunar 4G/LTE system will have two primary components. The first is the base station unit, which will be integrated directly into Intuitive Machines’ spacecraft, the Nova-C lander, and act as the cell-site for the Moon network. The second component will be the radio equipment installed on two lunar vehicles.
Together these radio components will form a network that will allow the vehicles and lander to communicate with one another. A powerful direct-to-Earth radio connection from the lander will provide a link home, over which mission controllers will receive data and images and remotely operate the vehicles over the cellular network.
“Like shelter, food and life support, communications will be a crucial component of any future lunar or Mars mission,” said Thierry Klein, president of Bell Labs Solutions Research at Nokia. “Instead of ‘reinventing the wheel’ by creating a proprietary network in space, we are taking advantage of the same state-of-the-art technologies that connect billions of smartphones on Earth.”
With its Tipping Point initiative, NASA is fostering a new era of public-private partnerships, shepherding the development of critical space technologies.
The technologies that emerge from Tipping Point could be used in Artemis missions, which will establish sustainable operations on the Moon in preparation for future crewed expeditions to Mars.
Cellular networks would support habitat infrastructure and mission goals by linking sensors and connecting transport vehicles, scientific payloads, exploratory drones and rovers. Cellular links could be used to remotely operate dangerous machinery necessary for survival, such as mining and construction equipment.
Connectivity will play a major role in the lunar or Martian internet in the future. These networks will connect personal devices used by astronauts, like tablets, laptops and wearables.
One day astronauts may even be able to take their smartphones to space, using them in a Moon or Mars habitat the same way they would use them on Earth.