What's the challenge?
Networks on the Moon will need to cope with extreme temperatures, lunar dust (highly abrasive), radiation and a lack of atmosphere (components need to operate in a vacuum).
Before the network can be put to work on the Moon, it needs to get there – undamaged. The launch will subject network hardware to extreme acceleration, shock and vibration forces. The network also needs to tolerate landing on the lunar surface.
For this mission, the lunar lander’s payload is limited – with priority given to scientific equipment and the rover. Creating balance between the size and weight with the functionality and modularity of lunar network components will be essential.
All the operations and functions of the lunar lander and rover, in addition to the network and the device, will be solar and battery powered. The challenge lies in minimizing the network’s energy consumption.
The Moon is 384,400km away from Earth. Sending support to fix issues or configure the network on-site is just not possible. If something breaks, who fixes it? Who deploys and optimizes the network upon arrival? The network must be designed to autonomously handle its own maintenance, deployment, configuration, and failures.
Reliable network connectivity on the Moon will facilitate various fact-finding missions critical to lunar exploration and NASA’s plan for long-term lunar presence. The challenge is establishing a stable and reliable wireless network, between the lander and the rover (or any other payloads or mobile users), given the lunar terrain characteristics, uncertain exploration areas and the inability to perform traditional site surveys and network planning.
How are we adapting network capabilities to cope?
The choice of component materials will be critical to combat the Moon’s environmental conditions. Conductive and radiative cooling to keep components within their operating ranges. To mitigate radiation effects, components are tested for susceptibility to radiation-induced errors. Equipment will be hardened against environmental stresses and conformal coating can be applied for added protection.
As these challenges mainly affect the physical network components, mechanical hardening is needed to combat the effects of vibration, acceleration and shock. The mechanical design needs to be done in conjunction with the thermal design to ensure network equipment can operate on the Moon.
The lunar network will optimally integrate hardware in one compact enclosure (e.g. an all-in-one network) using lightweight components. Software integration - the evolved packet core and baseband will run on the same board – will also help minimize the number of components, reducing size and weight.
The lunar network’s software will be highly integrated into fewer electronic boards that share resources, resulting in overall less power consumption. Intelligent mechanisms like LTE Smart Scheduler will also reduce overall power consumption.
A network on the Moon requires capabilities for full autonomous operations, self-configuration, and self-healing. Operations and Maintenance (O&M) systems will be adapted to increase robustness to improve stability and 1+1 hardware/software redundancy limiting the impact of failure. Fast reboot capability is planned to provide quick recovery in the case of failure.
By choosing 4G LTE for this network, NASA is backed by a proven, mature technology which already overcomes hurdles of reliability and stability in multiple deployment scenarios. To ensure reliable connectivity on the Moon, significant pre-launch testing for a range of environments will be key.
Where might we apply these learnings here on Earth?
Networks on Earth may not experience such extreme environmental conditions, but these adaptations will prove useful for many situations – from public safety and emergency response (e.g. disaster relief efforts) to environmentally-challenged remote locations (e.g., deserts or the Arctic), to tailoring networks in vertical industries such as mining, transportation and logistics.
Terrestrial networks that support communications and operations – in mines, onshore/offshore oil and gas drilling sites, and wind farms – will be exposed to similar mechanical conditions (e.g. vibration and shock). These conditions may not be as extreme as our lunar ventures, but network adaptations promise to be very useful in extreme operating environments on Earth.
Size and weight limitations directly impact networks used for public safety, emergency response and in remote locations here on Earth. The ‘all-in-one’ network can be used by rescue workers heading into disaster zones with potentially non-functional communications. Remote locations and mines may benefit too, depending on site requirements.
Terrestrial networks servicing public safety and emergency response, mines, and remote locations may have power limitations. While networks are generally compatible with many power sources, the power source (e.g. wind, solar, electrical, battery) may not deliver enough power constantly. Innovations in lowering network power consumption will directly benefit these situations on Earth.
The need to directly access network infrastructure for deployment and maintenance can be a constant challenge. Many sites in rural and remote locations, and in vertical industries (e.g. oil/gas, mining, wind farms, transportation/logistics), where on-site operations are restricted will require innovations in autonomous operations, self-configuration, and self-healing.
Reliable connectivity is something we all want, whether we are at work, at home or at play. These days, ‘mission critical networks’ have taken on new meaning. Businesses can rely on LTE to run at the core of their operations, while cities and cars get smarter. Further, pre-launch network testing will undoubtedly uncover new configurations which will be useful to many different settings here on Earth.