WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
As different organisations around the globe look to start building the first human outposts on the Moon they’ll need high quality networks to transmit data and communicate with Earth.
Mobile phone coverage on Earth may not be as comprehensive as it could be, and I should know, I live in the UK countryside where GPRS and 3G are a luxury, but ironically that isn’t stopping Vodafone and Nokia from teaming up and setting up the first 4G network on the Moon, and while that might seem as pointless as opening a tourist shop on Jupiter there’s actually a serious purpose behind it. The data streaming network will provide communications support for an unmanned rover mission that’s being planned by a team called Part Time Scientists (PTScientists) who originally hail from the now cancelled $30million Google Lunar XPrize competition, and who are planning to launch their private mission to the Moon next year.
When the Apollo 17 mission, the last of the manned lunar missions, touched down at Taurus-Littrow on the south eastern edge of Mare Serenitatis on December 1, 1972, the astronauts communicated to Earth using an analogue Unified S-Band radio link capable of sending a paltry 51.2 kbps of data. This meant that the live, standard resolution television images sent back from the Lunar Rover used by Mission Commander Eugene Cernan and Lunar Module Pilot Harrison Schmitt to explore the area were very standard, and very grainy, indeed.
Today we live in an era of HD video and that requires a lot of bandwidth, and without a high quality communications network, beaming video from the surface of the Moon, which will stream live via the team’s YouTube channel, would be something of a challenge for them.
The purpose of the PTScientists privately funded mission in 2019 is to land their Autonomous Landing and Navigation Module (ALINA) in the vicinity of the Apollo 11 landing site, then deploy two Audi lunar Quattro rovers that I’ve talked about before, to explore the area and approach the abandoned Lunar Rover from the Apollo 17 mission all those decades ago.
How close the Audi lunar Quattros can get to the landing site is open to question because the US regards all the Apollo landing sites as historic monuments to which there should be only limited access. Apollo 17 is particularly sensitive and NASA requests that all future missions keep at least 2 km (1.25 mi) away. But the bigger problem is that the Quattros is a bit of a lightweight as rovers go, coming in at 30 kg (66 lb). That means it can’t generate enough power to send a radio signal to Mission Control in Berlin via a deep space network, such as the interplanetary network that NASA has recently been trialling, and certainly not HD video.
The plan is for Nokia Bell Labs to build what is claimed to be the lightest ever space-grade Ultra Compact Network, weighing only about a kilogram (2.2 lb). This will set up the Moon’s first 4G network operating in the 1,800-MHz frequency band to connect the rovers with the base station, which will act as a relay back to Earth. If it’s anything like its terrestrial counterparts, this means the all-Internet Protocol (IP) packet-switched system will be able to handle data loads of between 100 Mb/s and 1 Gb/s.
According to Vodafone this link will allow live streaming of HD video from the Moon, which will be relayed to a global audience through PTScientists’ server, and the hope is that the network could find applications in other future space missions, such as the European Space Agency’s plans to build the first village on the Moon, and perhaps even play a role in SpaceX’s mission later this year to fly the first space tourists around the Moon.
“This is a crucial first step for sustainable exploration of the solar system,” says Robert Böhme, CEO and Founder of PTScientists, “in order for humanity to leave the cradle of Earth, we need to develop infrastructures beyond our home planet. With Mission to the Moon we will establish and test the first elements of a dedicated communications network on the Moon. The great thing about this LTE solution is that it saves so much power, and the less energy we use sending data, the more we have to do science.”