Exactly 49 years ago today, on July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 landed on the Moon and a new era in exploration, scientific discovery and communication was born. The term ‘ground-breaking’ is used to describe many events, but as Neil Armstrong stepped onto the lunar surface uttering the famous words “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” the human race did, quite literally, emerge into a fundamentally new scientific and cultural territory.
For almost 5 decades, that NASA footage beamed down to Houston and to living rooms around the world has captured the imagination of generations. So, you can imagine our excitement when Nokia was chosen to be the exclusive technology partner for the upcoming Mission to the Moon project, led by Vodafone, Audi and the space pioneers at the Berlin-based PTScientists. This un-crewed Moon landing will celebrate the accomplishments of the Apollo program and conduct a series of technological and scientific experiments, with Nokia Bell Labs designing, developing and managing the first ever LTE network on the Moon – a giant leap for networking!
Imagine a level playing field in the stars
The lunar LTE network will provide live continuous communications between the rovers (provided by Audi) and the Moon lander (provided by PTScientists) and deliver the first live-streaming HD video from the Moon to a global audience.
The goal is to establish mission-critical communications infrastructure and explore technological advances that can power the future of human space exploration - an important stepping stone to enabling wider access to space as well as building future settlements on the Moon and even further afield. The mission-critical LTE infrastructure we are building leverages commercial communication technologies – the same technologies used every day on Earth, but adapted to be robust enough to withstand the extreme environment of the Moon.
For this mission, we are enhancing the Ultra Compact Network we created to provide communications needs in critical locations, where there is no permanent communications network or it has been destroyed, to create a completely integrated, ultra-light network infrastructure that operates across much larger distances and optimized for fully autonomous operations. The challenges are significant; sharp lunar dust particles that are 1,000 times finer than on Earth; intense radiation from the sun; extreme temperature variations and temperatures plummeting to -160°C in the shade; and extreme shock and vibration during launch and lunar landing are just some of the challenges that must be overcome. But we are making great progress in developing the solution - our hardware has already passed initial shock, vibration and thermal testing in our reliability labs.
Doing what we’ve always done
In many ways, we have been here and done this before, as we have a rich and successful history in space. In 1962, AT&T Bell Labs and NASA launched the first communications satellite – the Telstar 1. This ground-breaking achievement enabled live television transmissions and telephone communications between the US and Europe, and modern communication as we know it was born. The Telstar 1 satellite was made possible by a whole series of unique inventions by Bell Labs, including the transistor, the world’s first solar cell, the horn antenna receiver, and a unique amplifier for microwave communications systems called a travelling wave tube amplifier.
And it was the very same horn antenna receiver used by Telstar 1 that helped two of our radio scientists, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, to detect a low-level, mysterious noise persisting in background of their radio receiver which turned out that they had discovered cosmic microwave background radiation, one of the strongest pieces of evidence supporting the “Big Bang” theory of the origin of the universe. They were awarded the Nobel Prize for this discovery in 1978.
Redefining the limits of what’s possible
Today’s scientists, mathematicians and engineers at Nokia Bell Labs are still dedicated to inventing technologies that enable a new reality for humankind by redefining the limits of what’s possible. Projects like Mission to the Moon are not just about exploration of new human frontiers in space, they are about taking the discoveries and learnings from this extreme environment and advancing what’s possible in mission-critical communications for enterprise and industrial automation, for example in the fields of public safety, the energy sector, transportation, remote industrial sites, agriculture and many other critical government and enterprise sectors. In this way, the increased technological knowhow we’ll gain on this Mission to the Moon will have a hugely positive impact on our current and future existence back on Earth.
One of my favorite quotes on space innovation comes from Carissa Christensen, Chief Executive of Bryce Space and Technology, who says: “The difference between crazy and visionary in space is often time.” And the 92-year history of Bell Labs has shown time and again that what was considered crazy or impossible not only becomes possible but becomes a human necessity over time.
In other words, space is not just the final frontier for humanity but is also a key exploration space to drive innovation for the present as well. So, stay tuned.