Insight by Nokia

The case for 3GPP for Lunar Comms

The United States is taking another run at lunar exploration and looking to bring the same compute and communication power that is on Earth to the Moon. To addr...

A local cellular network on the Moon might not be so far away. However, it will take some innovative thinking to make it a reality.

In the 1960s and 70s, NASA developed the Unified S Band Communications System for the Apollo missions to communicate with spacecraft from Earth. The original network included a 51.2 Kbps connection for telemetry data. Today, a modern smartphone has over a million times more memory than the Apollo Guidance Computer that took NASA’s first astronauts to the Moon.

On Earth, the amount of data that passes through cellular networks has exploded. The volume of data generated, consumed, copied, and stored is projected to reach more than 180 zettabytes by 2025. This data proliferation is driven by modern day computing, high resolution video, AL/ML data analysis and more.

The United States is taking another run at lunar exploration and looking to bring the same compute and communication power that is on Earth to the Moon with the Artemis program, NASA’s latest Moon project. The project is working to establish sustainable operations on the Moon by the end of the decade in preparation for an expedition to Mars.  Future lunar missions (and subsequent missions to Mars) will require a much higher performing wireless network to support the required voice, video and data transmissions between astronauts, control of rovers and robotics vehicles, download of data from scientific experiments and transmission of sensor and telemetry data.

To address the need for a high-performance lunar surface wireless network, one of the companies NASA is working with is Nokia. The agency has asked Nokia, and its award-winning research arm Nokia Bell Labs, to build and deploy the first 4G/LTE cellular network on the Moon based on the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) standards.

“3GPP is a global standard for wireless communication that enables our smartphones, tablets, automobiles, and other devices to connect to the Internet from any country on Earth,” said Steve Vogelsang, Chief Technology Officer for Nokia’s Federal Division. “Nokia is looking to adapt 3GPP cellular technology and standards for a lunar network.”

NASA is adapting these standards for space to enable astronauts to communicate, stream live video, deploy sensors for scientific experiments and more while on the lunar surface. On Earth, billions of dollars are invested in the development of 3GPP tech every year and it’s integrated into billions of devices.  By using the same technology for lunar communications NASA (via partners like Nokia) can integrate commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) components for 4G/LTE into a lunar lander and rover vehicles. This reduces cost and accelerates development times by reusing tried and true technology.

But it requires innovation to adapt technology developed for Earth for use in space or on the Moon.

“If you think about a mine in Australia, it has similar use cases to that of a Moon colonization,” said Thierry Klein, President of Bell Labs Solutions Research at Nokia Bell Labs. “They are typically in remote and rugged locations with no cellular service, and you need to connect people, machines, big trucks, diggers, and other autonomous vehicles.”

Like the mine in Australia, NASA is looking to utilize 3GPP to provide wide area coverage on the Moon from a tower or landing vehicle.

But there are also some differences. The Moon is an extremely harsh environment, one that isn’t friendly to precise equipment or delicate instruments. It is also over 238,000 miles from Earth making it unrealistic to send specialized crews to perform regular maintenance.

Klein says Nokia and NASA are trying to put as much of Earth’s 3GPP standards on the Moon as possible, but those challenges need some creative thinking to solve.

“You need to harden the equipment to survive the shock, vibration and acceleration of a rocket launch,” he said. “Rocket launches subject the equipment to accelerations several times Earth’s gravity which can damage equipment that is not properly designed.”

Then once you’re on the Moon there’s the extreme temperatures. The temperature can swing 300 degrees Celsius from lunar day to lunar night.

“You have to design your systems so they withstand these extreme environmental changes,” Klein said. “Radiation is another issue. On the Moon the equipment is much more exposed to particle radiation than on Earth. You have to make sure the equipment is hardened for that too.”

Nokia is working on protecting those systems, while also ensuring they have a consistent power source, one that doesn’t need constant recharging from humans.

Another factor is diagnosing and fixing issues. Without the ability to send a technician to repair or trouble shoot the network, NASA will need its lunar network to figure out what is wrong if something goes haywire.

“We’re interested in how far we can push our technology in the most extreme environments,” Klein said.

The payoff could be extremely beneficial.

No more grainy images from the Moon or sending data back to Earth to be analyzed. Astronauts will be able to deploy high resolution cameras and other sensors to gather live images and detailed scientific data.  And, because 4G/LTE uses the Internet Protocol astronauts will eventually be able to access the Internet from the lunar surface to stay in touch with loved ones.

NASA launched its first unmanned Artemis mission last year. The first crewed flight will be in 2024 and NASA plans to put humans on the Moon in 2025.

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