Cell coverage on Earth may not be as comprehensive as it could be, but that isn't stopping Vodafone and Nokia from setting up the first 4G network on the Moon. That may seem as pointless as opening a burger bar on Pluto, but there is a serious purpose behind it. The data-streaming network will provide communications support for an unmanned lander/rover mission by PTScientists scheduled to launch in 2019.
When Apollo 17, the last of the manned lunar missions, touched down at Taurus-Littrow on the southeastern edge of Mare Serenitatis on December 1, 1972, the astronauts communicated to Earth using an analog 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 A. Cernan and Lunar Module Pilot Harrison H. Schmitt to explore the area were very standard indeed.
Today, we live in an era of high-definition digital video that requires a lot of bandwidth. This would cause something of a problem for PTScientists, a group of volunteer scientists and engineers based in Germany, when it launches its lunar mission from Cape Canaveral atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket next year.
The purpose of the privately-funded mission is to land the Autonomous Landing and Navigation Module (ALINA) in the vicinity of the Apollo 17 landing site, then deploy two Audi lunar Quattro rovers to explore the area and approach the abandoned Lunar Rover.
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 – 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 Vodaphone this link will allow live streaming of HD video from the Moon, which will be relayed to a global audience through PTScientists' server. In addition, the technology could find applications in future missions.
"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."
Update (Mar. 5, 2018): This article originally stated that the mission planned to land in the vicinity of "the Apollo 11 landing site." This was an error and should have read "the Apollo 17 landing site." This has now been corrected. Our apologies for the mistake and thanks to the readers who pointed it out.
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