Nokia has pipped its rivals to a contract with US space agency NASA to deploy the first lunar cellular network in late 2022, in preparation for a planned manned mission two years later.
Nokia was chosen because it could provide not just the 4G cellular infrastructure but also associated components developed by its Bell Labs R&D arm, to ensure that the network is fully space-hardened and tuned to the very different environmental background with no atmosphere but far greater extremes of temperature than on earth.
This is part of the NASA Artemis program, whose Phase 1 plans, revealed in September 2020, include landing the first woman as well as the next man on the lunar surface in 2024. This came 18 months after NASA agreed to accelerate plans by over four years, aiming now to establish a sustainable base for lunar exploration by the end of the decade.
The Nokia mobile network would provide the communications for this enterprise, as well as supporting the initial landing itself. This will be part of the ‘Tipping Point’ group of technologies for the moon, which to begin with will involve well proven LTE technology, with an upgrade to 5G planned later.
It will comprise an LTE base station with integrated evolved packet core (EPC) functionality, along with LTE user equipment and RF antennas, orchestrated by operations and maintenance control software. The fully pre-integrated cellular network will have to satisfy the stringent size, weight and power constraints of space payloads in a highly compact form factor.
In order to be deployed without human assistance in 2022, the equipment will also have to be self-configurable after landing. It will then provide critical communication for a growing variety of applications, including command and control, remote operation of lunar rovers, real time navigation and also streaming of high definition video.
It is notable that nearly all these fundamental capabilities were required for the original Apollo programme that first landed a man on the moon just over 51 years ago in 1969. That required major advances in wireless communications just as on other technological fronts, so perhaps Nokia is looking for a similar innovation bonus this time.
The programs preceding Apollo, Mercury and Gemini, had separate radio systems for voice, telemetry and tracking. But this was not deemed feasible for Apollo with its additional requirements for TV pictures, command, tracking and ranging, largely because it would be too heavy and complex to operate.
This led to development of the Unified S-band (USB) system by NASA in conjunction with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), operating in the S-band portion of the microwave spectrum between 2 GHz and 4 GHz. This unified all the voice, video, navigation, command and control signalling under a single system. In some ways, that was a precursor to the network Nokia will be deploying, a decade and a half before the advent of commercial cellular services on earth.