Vodafone Germany and Nokia have teamed up to build an ultra-lightweight, space-worthy cellular network unit — a cellular tower to be placed on the moon. If all goes well, cell phone service will become available on the moon next year.
Why provide cell phone service on the moon? The last time anyone traveled to the moon was 1972, and at Northrop Grumman, we remember this well: Every human who went to the moon and back did so aboard parent company Grumman’s Lunar Module. Cellular technology obviously didn’t exist at that time, but today, it could solve some issues related to lunar missions.
Driving on the Moon
The lunar 4G network will be carried out next year aboard the spacecraft ALINA, which, according to Space.com, will become the first privately owned spacecraft to reach the moon. The name ALINA is short for Autonomous Landing and Navigation Module, and its payload will include not only the cellular network infrastructure, but also a pair of lunar rovers built by Audi. The four-wheel-drive rovers, designed using 3D printing, are built to handle difficult terrain and are equipped with solar panels.
Established Technology, New Challenges
The ALINA mission was conceived and designed by a German-based organization, PTScientists. Rather than develop a special one-off communication system to link ALINA with its rovers, the team realized that it could reduce development costs by adapting established cell phone technology to provide a base station for communicating with and directing the rovers.
Of course, your cell phone is not rated to work in outer space, and most cellular towers are too heavy for a practical space mission. The ALINA mission, according to Space.com, will carry a space-rated version of Nokia’s Ultra Compact Network — the lightest cellular station ever built, weighing in at 1 kilogram, or 2.2 pounds, slightly heavier than a quart of milk.
One Small Step for Lunar Infrastructure
As reported by Jason Daley at Smithsonian magazine, the lunar rovers carried by the ALINA mission will use their cell phone links to send back images and data more efficiently than conventional “analog” radio links would allow.
The objective of this initial mission, per Smithsonian magazine, will be to study an earlier model of the lunar rover — the one carried by Apollo 17 in 1972. The astronauts abandoned the rover, along with the landing stage of the Grumman Lunar Module that carried them there. (The astronauts were carried safely back to lunar orbit by the module’s ascent stage.)
But if all goes reasonably well, there will be further missions — and further need for cell phone service on the moon, including handling phone calls by future lunar astronauts.