There are plenty of places on Earth where cell phone service is still pretty sketchy—rural America, central Africa, the lower level of my house. But, if things go well, one huge dead zone will get a major upgrade next year. As Tariq Malik at Space.com reports, a private space program hopes to bring a cellular network to the moon.
The cell network is part of a planned mission by a Berlin-based group called Part Time Scientists, or PTScientists for short, a consortium of scientists and engineers. The team originally hoped to claim the Google Lunar X-Prize, a $30 million payout for landing a spacecraft on the moon that includes a rover with the capacity to travel 500 meters and transmit high-def images back to Earth. While PTScientists and 15 other teams failed to claim the prize, which expires March 31, 2018, the group still hopes to launch its cellular project to the moon.
As Malik reports, in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing next year, PTScientist plan to launch their ALINA (Autonomous Landing and Navigation Module) lunar lander and two small Audi Lunar Quattro Rovers on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral. The lander will be equipped with a space-grade Ultra Compact 4G Network, which weighs in at about 2.2 pounds—the lightest ever developed. The device will receive signals from the rovers and beam them back to Earth at 1800 Megahertz, sending a live HD video feed of the Moon’s surface.
So why do they need a cell network? It’s not to chat with little green men. According to a press release from cell company Vodafone and phone manufacturer Nokia, who are collaborating on the project, a cell network is lighter and much less energy intensive than an analogue radio network, which is important for the small rovers. Malik also reports that the rovers will not have to stop to send signals back to the lander, meaning they can transmit video as they trundle along.
“This important mission is supporting, among other things, the development of new space-grade technologies for future data networking, processing and storage, and will help advance the communications infrastructure required for academics, industry and educational institutions in conducting lunar research," Marcus Weldon, chief technology officer at Nokia and president of Bell Labs, says in the release. "These aims have potentially wide-ranging implications for many stakeholders and humanity as a whole, and we look forward to working closely with Vodafone and the other partners in the coming months, prior to the launch in 2019.”
So the big question is, why is the super-cutting edge moon network 4G and not the state of the art 5G? As Reuters reports, Vodafone decided to stick with the tried and true 4G system since 5G is still considered to be in its testing phase. They didn’t want land the network on the moon only to realize they had a bad signal.
Whatever the network, the images from the mission promise to be stunning. The team plans to land near the Taurus-Littrow Valley and study the abandoned rover used by astronauts during the 1972 Apollo 17 mission. According to a statement by PTScientists, their rovers will be outfitted with three cameras with twice the resolution as those used on the Apollo missions. Two cameras will work together to provide 3D images of the lunar surface and the third will be available for scientific work. But we're guessing that, if the cell coverage is good enough, it will just spend most of its time scrolling through Facebook.