How Nokia plans to establish a 4G network on the Moon
Nokia Bell Lab’s Thierry Klein says he is what some might call a “space geek” – and although he has never traveled to orbit, a planned mission with NASA to establish an LTE network on the Moon brings him a little closer.
4G LTE networks are well established here on Earth, but what does it take to translate cellular technology into applications on the lunar surface?
FierceWireless spoke to Klein, head of the industrial and enterprise automation research lab at Nokia Bell Labs, to find out.
To begin with, it takes a lot of testing. When a cell site goes down or something goes wrong in a terrestrial network, line up for the technician or team of engineers to go do a fix. On the Moon, however, help isn’t exactly in truck (or even rocket launch) reach.
“You can never test enough,” Klein told Fierce.
So it is fortunate that the last mission with NASA is not Nokia’s first foray into lunar LTE. The Finnish supplier was the technology partner of a previous privately funded project in 2018 with Vodafone and Audi to put LTE on the moon.
This mission never flew, but Nokia has already built an LTE system for this purpose. He set up configurations exactly like those that would be used on the Moon, to test performance, range, throughput and more. According to Klein, about 25 tests were performed in environmental chambers for extreme conditions and stressors such as shock, vibration, vacuum operation, thermal and radiation.
The new project is part of NASA Artemis program, and Nokia won a $ 14.1 million award for its winner A “Tipping Point” proposal that the space program has requested to help develop technologies for sustainable human operations on the lunar surface by 2030.
Now, however, Nokia must integrate the equipment into a lunar lander developed by Houston-based Intuitive Machines, and there is still development and testing to be done to align with the requirements of the specific mission at hand – which, although similar, is also unique.
“That’s really our goal this year,” Klein said of development, integration and testing.
The target launch date is sometime in 2022. A location has not been finalized for the mission, but it is targeting the Moon’s South Pole for operation over several weeks of lunar day.
So, what does a lunar LTE network setup look like? Nokia’s plans begin with gear optimized and ruggedized to withstand extreme conditions, from takeoff to landing, to intense radiation once on the surface.
It’s all of the commercial network elements crunched into what essentially becomes an entire LTE network in a box, according to Klein.
“You have your radio, your baseband, your core, all of your features integrated into one compact unit that will be deployed on the lunar lander,” Klein said, along with antennas. He compared it to a small cell with an integrated advanced packet kernel (ePC).
The equivalent of the User Equipment (UE) is affixed to the rover, also with its own antennas, to establish the link between the lunar lander and the UE on the rover.
The antennas do not radiate from a typical tower height of 100 feet, but at the top of the lander between 3 and 5 meters from the ground. This has a major impact on reach, Klein noted, and the project targets two scenarios.
One is at close range, sending the rover 300 to 400 meters from the lander, and a second longer range target where the rover would be up to 5 kilometers from the lander. This is something Nokia believes is achievable based on experimental validation with its equipment, power levels and height, Klein said.
In addition to the LTE system, Nokia provides operational maintenance software that connects to mission control to manage the management, maintenance, configurations and remote control of the network itself.
The Moon presents its own unique terrain challenges, but one of the perks is that you won’t find any skyscrapers like you would in the downtown area of a large metropolitan area.
“The lunar landscape is very different, no obstacles, no buildings, no trees,” Klein said. “At the same time you have valleys and craters and boulders, but it’s usually open terrain, which helps range.” And electromagnetic waves propagate even without an atmosphere.
Are you looking for a signal?
The point of the mission isn’t for the astronauts to video chat or send GIFs – at least not at first.
Space communications typically use proprietary technologies developed by defense or aerospace companies, Klein said, with Wi-Fi being used on the International Space Station. And this is different from direct communications from space to Earth using satellites or other technologies.
No cellular technology is used in space, Klein said. It would therefore be the first time that the cell phone has come into play for lunar or space communications.
As an unmanned space mission, the primary goal is to establish surface communications on the Moon – with data links between the lunar lander and a bespoke equivalent of an end user device attached to the rover. For this project, this mainly involves the transmission of HD video and data from the rover to the lander, as well as the remote control of the rover.
Nokia hopes to deliver advanced capabilities like throughput, latency, reliability, and other features of 4G. In the future, access to information, interactions with machines, voice and video will all be part of the picture when astronauts enter lunar, Martian or other space missions.
“In the future, these will be crewed missions so that astronauts can talk to each other, machines, sensors, devices, and really have all of their video, voice, biometric, telemetry, sensor data collection applications that they can collect. as well as any other. automation and robotic control, ”Klein said.
Ultimately, as NASA seeks to establish a lasting presence on the Moon, a human element also comes into play and motivates Nokia.
“We use cellular technologies every day and astronauts in their personal lives also use these abilities,” Klein said, and Nokia believes they should have access to it when they are on missions as well, not just here on Earth.
There are four key areas Nokia needs to prepare for to ensure that the hardware and software are robust enough for the space.
The first is to make sure it survives launch and landing, Klein explained, with mechanical stressors such as shock, vibration and acceleration.
The second is to be able to operate in extreme environments, involving temperature ranges, operating under vacuum and under radiation.
Radiation is one of the most unique challenges in space, according to Klein.
The impact of radiation on software is that it can switch bits in the code “and then all of a sudden your code just doesn’t work.” The question becomes a software architecture on how to guard against it and recover from it. And not all hardware components are equally sensitive to radiation, he explained.
The third is reliability, as mentioned earlier.
“Here there is no way to send someone to change the equipment, so it has to be absolutely reliable, you have to have redundancy, both on hardware and software and you have to be able to configure, restart and remotely manage your equipment, ”Klein said.
And the fourth is about size, weight and power. This means integrating as much as possible into a single form factor, according to Klein, and optimizing power consumption so that dimensions and functions are reduced to the bare minimum. But it’s a balance over the third point of reliability and robustness, he noted, with double redundancy on the hardware elements.
Although the radiation can be unique to space, small footprints, power consumption and weight are also important for a terrestrial network.
“It’s not only exciting to put it in space, but we see that we would be pushing technology and development capabilities that will also be applicable in terrestrial environments,” Klein said. “In doing this, we will absolutely learn and optimize networks, then bring those lessons back to earth and apply them in our commercial product for enterprise industrial applications.”
Imagine oil rigs or mines, where remote operation also applies to small form factors.
The team looks forward to a successful mission, to validate performance and provide models so they can design and size for future, potentially larger-scale applications in space.
On a personal level for Klein and the team, he said the most exciting aspect is that the technologies developed by Nokia Bell Labs are pushing them beyond current limits.
“It’s just a very exciting opportunity to go as far as possible, literally maybe,” Klein said.