Nowadays, 4G networks are already able to reach some of the most remote places on the planet. Today, however, players in the telecommunications sector are preparing for a new challenge of unprecedented complexity: providing the Moon with its own 4G network.
This is a challenge for NASA, which plans to establish a lasting human presence on the Moon by the end of the decade, as part of its Artemis program. Such a project inevitably comes with a host of logistical problems. If food, sleep, or space suit design are the first things that come to mind, proper communication is just as important to living in space.
That’s why, while 4G networks – and the LTE technology that underlies them – have already proven their resilience on Earth, NASA turned to one of the major telecommunications providers, Nokia last year. . With an unusual request: to design a system to establish a 4G network that will be used by future astronauts on the Moon.
4G preferred over Wi-Fi
Still, the idea of a space equipped with the Internet is not new. Astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS), for example, have been using Wi-Fi since 2008, and can now even connect their spacesuits to the network to stream video from space, communicate with other alien vehicles, or facilitate mooring procedures. NASA has also developed proprietary software to enable communications between space and Earth, via a vast network of antennas and relay satellites, to transmit data billions of kilometers to the ground.
The new plans of the space agency and Nokia differ slightly, as the Scandinavian manufacturer has been tasked with setting up a local area network on the Moon, which will only extend for about five kilometers, to allow communication. between astronauts and ground equipment.
“In their personal lives, astronauts have smartphones – so when they go into space, why wouldn’t they have access to the same capabilities for their communication and collaboration needs? », Explains Thierry Klein, head of the research laboratory on industrial automation at Nokia Bell Labs, interviewed by . And to explain that a 4G network would allow astronauts to benefit from a higher speed, a lower latency and a greater range than with Wi-Fi.
An experimental network
The network will support a variety of data transmission applications, ranging from ordinary voice and video communications to remote control of moon rovers, real-time navigation and high-definition video streaming.
If, for the moment, NASA mainly plans to use the lunar 4G for experiments, the scientist does not hesitate to think big. “In the future, as we establish a longer term presence on the Moon and build more communities, and perhaps in the future on Mars, the needs for voice communication will be greater.” », He explains.
For the foreseeable future, however, the focus will remain on the reliable operation of the technology in a first unmanned mission scheduled for 2022, to test the readiness of the technology and validate some of the applications. keys before Nokia’s 4G infrastructure can be used by real astronauts at a later date.
Partnership with Intuitive Machine
To transport 4G technology to the moon, Nokia is working with the company Intuitive Machines, which is building a lunar lander to transport the LTE communication system into space and safely route network equipment to the lunar surface.
Nokia equips Intuitive Machine’s lander with an LTE base station similar to those found in terrestrial 4G networks, which configure itself upon deployment – but in this case, the station will be transformed into a single compact unit integrating several network components, such as EPC (Evolved Packet Core) functionality and RF antennas.
The lander will then deploy a rover which will leave with the user’s equipment. “The equivalent of a smartphone, but hardened for spatial conditions”, specifies Thierry Klein – and an omnidirectional antenna which will connect to the base station and will effectively establish 4G connectivity. A satellite connection will then be used from the lander to communicate with the mission control center on Earth, from where commands will be sent and network equipment will be managed remotely.
An unprecedented company
At first glance, therefore, the process seems simple and quite similar to the deployment of a conventional network. Beware of appearances, however: as Thierry Klein explains, the constraints of space mean that every detail must be carefully planned. First comes the launch and landing. “The system must be mechanically robust for launch and landing, in order to withstand shocks, vibrations, acceleration and all the mechanical constraints associated with its deployment in space,” explains the manager at Nokia Bell Labs.
Even after the lander has reached the lunar surface, the system must be prepared to deal with extreme temperature variations in space, as well as terrain features that are specific to the Moon – ranging from radio propagation different to rocks, mountains and craters, continues the latter.
There is also the matter of size, weight and power, all of which should be kept to a minimum when venturing into space. “You want reliability, and we’ve built redundancy into the system, but you have to strike a balance with size, weight and power consumption,” says Thierry Klein. “A lot of work is devoted to the integration of the system, in order to reduce all these elements as much as possible. “
It goes without saying that the system goes through all kinds of rigorous testing. In test chambers, the equipment was subjected to a series of 25 experiments involving different accelerations and vibrations, but also temperatures, radiation levels and even an operational vacuum. Additionally, with a number of eerie, Moon-like landscapes even on planet Earth, Nokia brought the system out into the open to assess the technology’s performance on dry land.
For example, in the Canary Islands archipelago, in Spain, the island of Fuerteventura presents a volcanic landscape whose configuration is similar to that of the Moon. Thierry Klein and his team went to the site and deployed the equipment, checking the performance of the antennas at different heights and configurations, in an environment free of trees or buildings.
But even more than ensuring the survival of the hardware, explains Thierry Klein, it is the possibility of software problems that prevents him from sleeping at night. This is because if the system crashes for some reason, sending a technician to take a look at it won’t really be an option. “We do remote maintenance on Earth, of course, but you always have the option of sending someone there,” explains the scientist. “Once this network is launched, we will have to be absolutely able to operate it remotely. “
A project on track
To this end, Thierry Klein is constantly adjusting and refining Nokia’s operating and maintenance software suite, to allow the team to restart, make configuration changes and manage the lunar network remotely – in the knowledge that certain setbacks are bound to occur, with no way to prepare for them in advance.
“At the end of the day, the only thing you can do is fly and test it for real,” he says.
The timing is aggressive: the engineer and his team have had two years between when Nokia was selected and the first targeted launch. It is not much time to prepare for the arrival of 4G / LTE on the Moon, but the project is on track to meet the deadlines, assures Thierry Klein. So it looks like, in the years to come, even the Moon will experience its own digital transformation.