The ultimate private network
Next year, Nokia Bell Labs and NASA will deploy the first LTE 4G communications system in space. Thierry E. Klein, VP of the enterprise and industrial automation research lab at Nokia Bell Labs, tells Melanie Mingas why it’s one giant leap for telecoms
Space travel has brought many transformative innovations to everyday life, from freeze-dried food to wireless headphones, Velcro and even the rollerball pen. But now a technology that is integral to everyday life is being adapted for space – 4G LTE.
Confirmed in October, Nokia has been selected by NASA to build the first ever cellular network on the Moon, validating the technology to enable proximity surface communications for future crewed and uncrewed missions.
The system utilises an LTE base station with integrated EPC functionalities, LTE user equipment, RF antennas and operations and maintenance (O&M) control software.
The $14.1 million project is part of NASA’s Tipping Point programme and it isn’t just the first LTE communications system in space, it’s also the solar system’s ultimate private network.
“It is a private network in a harsh environment,” says Thierry E. Klein, head of the enterprise and industrial automation research lab at Nokia Bell Labs.
“You need to be able to build a private network in the first place and that brings together a lot of the integration from a hardware and software perspective. There’s no environment on earth that is so extreme, but coal mines, oil rigs, remote wind turbines, where you need to set up a private network, size weight and power will be equally important in those environments.
“We see a lot of similarities – the Moon is the extreme version,” he says.
Since the project was announced, Klein and the Nokia Bell Labs team have been working with NASA and other project partners; including Intuitive Machines, the firm that pioneered the landers and, for this project, will handle the integration of Nokia’s system with the lunar lander, as well as its transportation to the Moon.
The work is focused on planning, understanding how equipment needs to be adjusted, and assessing the additional development work that needs to take place. Or in Klein’s words, “really next-level, detailed planning”.
It’s on track and, with the target date set for late 2022, Klein says the next 12 to 15 months will involve a lot of development and even more testing, “in environmental chambers as well as integration with the overall vehicle that this will fly on”.
Meeting of the minds
Discussions with NASA have been ongoing for “a few years”, initially on a support and consultation basis, rather than for any specific project. But when Nokia’s first space communications project failed to get off the ground, things started to get serious.
That project was initiated by Vodafone in 2017, with Nokia brought on as technology partner, joined by Audi and a German space start-up.
“When it became clear that initial mission we were part of was not going to fly, we reached out more to NASA and said we have done quite a bit of work in terms of designing, testing, building this system, do you have any feedback on what we should do next and how we could leverage that? Because we have taken it as far as we can in building and testing it on earth, we would really like to fly on a mission,” says Klein.
By early 2020, NASA’s fifth Tipping Point solicitation was under way. The programme’s goal is to advance so-called “tipping point” technologies, in partnership with the private sector, for astronauts and robots in the Artemis programme – aka humanity’s return to the Moon – and other future NASA missions.
It follows the trend for space agencies forming public-private partnerships to meet their growing demand for external capabilities and expertise, and as the market continues to develop, the resulting innovations are bringing down the cost of such things as launches and satellites.
On the communications front, however, Nokia is pursuing a new frontier. With its system already proven, proposals were submitted, and in October 2020 it became official: the Moon is to get a 4G LTE network.
“That was then a meeting of the minds of what we were interested in doing and what they were looking to do,” Klein says, “and then the perfect aspect was really we said we are interested in doing this and not just on paper, but we have invested in designing, building and testing a system, and here’s all the tests we have done.”
NASA was already looking at 3GPP and cellular technologies, exploring if they could be adapted for space applications.
“They wanted to take the technologies that you or I use every day, and that they use every day, into space,” Klein explains.
That doesn’t mean to say the second man and first woman on the Moon will stream their experience live on Instagram.
The ultra-compact, low-power, space-hardened system built by Nokia Bell Labs is contained in what Klein describes as a
“large shoe box, but it’s more rectangular, so maybe a large pizza box”. Squeezed into that box is the radio equipment, O&M and core network functionalities, with antennas integrated on the lander and user equipment in development. “This is all in one compact form factor, then scaled to the capacity and the size we need for this particular mission,” Klein explains.
The inactivate network equipment will be mounted on the lander and remotely activated after launch, then the O&M software will kick in to do the rest. “And that will all be integrated with a rover that is deployed by the lander that will explore the lunar surface around the landing site,” Klein says.
The lander and rover are connected over LTE then linked back to Earth via satellite where, from Mission Control, the rover will be, well, controlled.
“The primary application is video. So we can see the video from the rovers, and we can remotely control and communicate with a rover to direct it,” Klein says. A control application does the work between the lander and rover, while the video application runs from the rover back to the lander and, ultimately, back to Earth,” he says.
“We are doing studies to understand the range and coverage we can get round the landing site. That primarily comes from the transmit power of the equipment as well as the antenna that we choose, then a lot of it depends on the antenna height.”
There won’t be 30-metre antennas on the Moon, but simulation studies have still recorded a propagation range of up to five kilometres using a lander-mounted antenna “four to five metres off the ground”.
Those tests were conducted on the Spanish island of Fuerteventura in the Atlantic Ocean. Known by most as a family holiday destination, it doesn’t spring to mind as the world’s harshest environment – or maybe, for that very reason, it does – but for those who are wondering, it was chosen over places like the Atacama Desert or the Australian Outback for its proximity to project teams in the US and Europe. And, while nowhere on Earth has the temperature extremes or radiation the Moon does, Fuerteventura did provide plenty of dusty, volcanic terrain.
Nobody will know how the system performs under real conditions until 2022, but it’s important to note that that is a milestone, not an end date, for the project.
“When we build larger networks for when astronauts go back to the Moon, or when we build a longer-term presence or communities on the Moon, the network size will need to be bigger, but we will understand the propagation so we can dimension those networks correctly.
“Part of this mission is to validate the technology itself, that it can survive in space, but then it’s also about validating the performance and calibrating our models so we can predict, reliably, what future performance will look like for future networks,” Klein explains.
Into the unknown
As Artemis is the sister of Apollo, so too is the Artemis programme a sibling to the Apollo missions. Starting with Neil Armstrong, they put a total of 12 humans on the Moon, but Apollo ended after four years. The difference this time is that Artemis will continue and, step by step, it will see NASA and its partners establish sustainable Moon exploration by the end of the decade. The experience will pave the way for human exploration of Mars.
Klein says: “2024 is not very far away, and we think of all the applications astronauts need in space, especially for a longer-term presence, and later on Mars. It is a lot of the applications you and I use on an everyday basis, or that you would see in enterprise industrial environments.”
For Klein and Nokia Bell Labs, as an operating environment the Moon isn’t much different to “a factory or a harbour where you will have a lot of voice and video, remote sensors, devices and scientific experiments they need to deploy, robotic applications,” he says. “A lot of the applications you would see in those industrial environments you would find a counterpart in a lunar or Martian mission,” he adds.
And now a new space race begins – one where it isn’t about simply getting to the Moon but taking there the advanced technology that pushes the boundaries of science here on Earth.
“That’s really opening the door to saying those capabilities are possible. You don’t have to rely on Wifi technologies, or proprietary or military derived technologies. You can benefit from the entire ecosystem that the telecoms industry is investing in for commercial applications,” Klein says.
Taking the lessons learned from building private networks on terrestrial ports and oil rigs, Nokia Bell Labs – and no doubt soon its peers – will continue to transfer this growing body of knowledge to space communications over the coming decades.
Couple that level of advancement with the growing needs of the world’s space agencies and, if one dares to dream, are we heading for a future where Nokia Space Comms is an independent company, part of an ecosystem of space comms players equipping future generations of astronauts with space smartphones that do live stream their landing to social media?
Klein says: “We have a connection to this project from believing astronauts should benefit from all the technologies we know exist and are possible, and we just need to make sure this happens.
“Whatever the best technology is, that’s sort of a core belief that we have. These guys are taking incredible risks; they are flying incredible missions. Let’s equip them with the best possible technologies that we can come up with.
“That is sort of a personal attachment we have to it, that we all feel.”