If you needed a compact and near-indestructible communications system for a high-stakes mission to an inhospitable new world, where else would you turn than to the makers of the legendary 3310? That’s exactly what NASA did a few weeks ago when they awarded a $14.1 million dollar contract to Nokia to develop the first ever cellular communications network on the Moon as one of their Tipping Point technologies to support the Artemis programme.
Lunar communications from 2022
The system, which will be developed by Nokia’s esteemed R&D subsidiary in the US (Bell Labs), will enable proximity communications on the lunar surface as well as wireless network coverage around the landing module. Due to touchdown in 2022, the self-configuring system will be deployed on the Moon with the help of Intuitive Machines, a Houston-based autonomous systems contractor founded by two NASA alumni.
Why choose 4G?
Despite increasing interest in 5G technologies, Nokia’s system will use the legacy 4G/LTE standards. The official line, according to Nokia, is that the older standard was chosen for its maturity, reliability, robustness and ease of scalability. All good reasons, but with the US as the driving force behind the Artemis programme and no heir-apparent to Huawei’s dominance in the 5G supply chain just yet, it’s easy to wonder whether geo-political considerations are at play too. Nokia itself notes that another benefit of adopting the legacy standard is its “large ecosystem of technology and component suppliers.”
5G cyber security concerns
Setting aside the political and economic machinations of global powers, wider concerns have been raised about the cyber-security implications of the switch to 5G. Widely celebrated for the standard’s potential to catalyse an Internet-of-Things revolution, some security analysts have warned that poorly configured smart devices risk opening back-doors into otherwise secure networks. With the increased download speeds that 5G offers, even a brief compromise of security can lead to significant data breaches. For organisations considering the switch to 5G, the increased regulatory scrutiny that has become cliché over the last few years should remain at the fore of mind. Strong cyber security controls and privacy by design will be essential to successful, compliant roll-outs (whether back on earth or elsewhere in space).
UN Guidelines to govern the allocation of spectrum between nations?
No announcements have yet been made as to the spectrum that the new system will use. The Artemis Accords (more on those here) do not sully themselves with such practicalities, but do provide that the Signatories (Australia, Canada, Japan, Luxembourg, Italy, the UAE, the UK and the US, so far) will conduct their outer space activities “with due consideration” to the UN Guidelines for the Long-term Sustainability of Outer Space Activities (the Guidelines).
The Guidelines, unlike the Artemis Accords, are the product of multi-lateral discussions within COPUOS and were formally adopted in June last year. They proclaim the radio frequency spectrum to be a limited natural resource which States must use in accordance with the ITU’s Radio Regulations.
Uncertainty for competing missions
Although neither the Guidelines nor the Radio Regulations limit their scope to earth or near-earth activities, the Artemis Accords provide that Signatories’ due consideration will be subject to “appropriate changes [to the Guidelines] to reflect the nature of operations beyond low-earth orbit.” This presents no immediate problems (interference with other radiocommunications seems unlikely given that the Moon is, after all, quite far away), but it does introduce an element of uncertainty. As lunar activities mature and more states and commercial actors begin to operate in lunar space, the Artemis Accords leave open the question of just how far their Signatories will consider themselves bound by the usual rules of the ITU in respect of spectrum allocations for their outer space activities.
That’s one small step for RAN, one giant leap for RANkind