4G on the moon: Could this network affect radio astronomy and space exploration?

4G on the moon: Could this network affect radio astronomy and space exploration?

NASA is going back to the Moon, but this time they have the intention to stay there: they have granted Nokia $14.1 million to build the first-ever 4G mobile network on the moon. But is this going to affect spatial exploration or astronomy somehow?

moon 4g

This October 19, Nokia announced that NASA selected them to install a 4G network on the Moon that will give astronauts the ability to communicate by voice and video, exchange telemetry and biometric data, and remotely control lunar rovers.

This is a historic event and would be the first-ever mobile network out of our world. According to NASA, this implies a huge advance to establish longer and more sustainable expeditions to the moon; and this would eventually be implemented in places like Mars.

But could this huge telecom advance affect other spatial conditions and the practice of sciences such as astronomy? This is something we have yet to realize.

The Artemis program and Nokia’s win

Under its Artemis program, NASA plans to send astronauts and a “sustainable” human presence to the moon by 2028. It then hopes to establish a base by the late 2020s where astronauts could live for months at a time and test technologies that could be used for a future manned mission to Mars.

Nokia has chosen to use 4G/LTE for the Moon network rather than the latest 5G technology because of its proven reliability. However, they plan to eventually transition to 5G in the future.

Nokia said its network will provide critical communications for work astronauts will need to perform on the moon. This will include remote control of lunar vehicles and other equipment, real-time navigation activities, and high-quality video streaming.

“The system could support lunar surface communications at greater distances, increased speeds, and provide more reliability than current standards,” NASA said of the proposed cellular network.

According to Nokia, this network will be up and running in 2022 with equipment delivered by a lunar lander and designed to be installed remotely. “The solution has been specially designed to withstand the harsh conditions of the launch and lunar landing, and to operate in the extreme conditions of space,” Nokia said.

The company’s U.S. industrial research arm, Bell Labs, is offering up its equipment to NASA to help build out the lunar network, to launch it in late 2022. They will also partner with a Texas-based private spacecraft design company, Intuitive Machines, to deliver the equipment to the moon on their lunar lander.

How could this network affect radio astronomy?

Astronomers suspect the network’s signals can adversely affect the study of radio signals elsewhere in the cosmos. And these will likely only compound the problems already being experienced as a result of the SpaceX Starlink satellites in low-Earth orbit.

Emma Alexander, a Ph.D. candidate in Astrophysics from the University of Manchester, wrote in The Conversation that “Radio frequency interference (RFI) is the long-term nemesis of radio astronomers.”

According to her article, Radio telescopes have been built more and more remotely in an attempt to avoid RFI. The upcoming Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope is being built across remote areas of South Africa and Australia to cut out many common sources for RFI, including mobile phones and microwave ovens. However, ground-based radio telescopes cannot completely avoid space-based sources of RFI such as satellites or a future lunar telecommunications network.

“The total energy now is probably a few snowflakes’ worth, but nevertheless it is still true that astronomical radio signals are typically magnitudes smaller than artificial ones. If Jodrell Bank could pick up interference from a phone signal on Mars, how would it fare with an entire 4G network on the Moon?”, Alexander said.

Alexander noted that monitoring at low radio frequencies may help answer basic questions about the universe. Like knowing his condition in the first moments after the Big Bang.

The proposed solution for radio astronomy

Emma Alexander proposed a solution potentially influenced by SpaceX head Elon Musk. Earlier this year, Musk suggested constructing orbital observatories as a work-around for those complaining about his Starlink satellites.

Ms. Alexander believes that such radio observatories could help avoid this increasingly contentious issue if a telescope could be positioned on the far side of the Moon, where all Earthly chatter would be instantly muted.

“A long-term dream of many radio astronomers would be to have a radio telescope on the far side of the Moon. In addition to being shielded from Earth-based signals, it would also be able to observe at the lowest radio frequencies, which on Earth are particularly affected by a part of the atmosphere called the ionosphere”, she added.

Space radiation and EMF

Space radiation is totally different from the kinds of radiation we experience here on Earth. It is comprised of atoms in which electrons have been stripped away as the atom accelerated in interstellar space to speeds approaching the speed of light – eventually, only the nucleus of the atom remains.

Space radiation is made up of three kinds of radiation: particles trapped in the Earth’s magnetic field; particles shot into space during solar flares (solar particle events); and galactic cosmic rays, which are high-energy protons and heavy ions from outside our solar system. All of these kinds of space radiation represent ionizing radiation. What about the other types of radiation emanating from human technologies? We asked our co-founder, Joaquin Machado, and he said:

“We need to consider how to apply our telecommunications systems in space in order to avoid future unpleasant interferences and health effects in our future astronauts. Electromagnetic fields from artificial sources or human sources are non-ionizing radiation, but artificially polarized, and they are already propagating out there with the launching of more and more satellites, and its presence will continue to grow with projects like this (Artemis). 

Even when Artificial EMFs are weaker compared with the Ionizing Radiation like cosmic rays, their effects in space have yet to be discovered, specially in terms of the future exploration of space. Let’s think how much exposure is going to receive the future astronauts having telecomm systems of super extreme frequency fields of Microwave Radiation no 4G or 5G, for 2030 we will be dealing with 6G above 100 GHz, and that needs to be considered.”

So, to start, there are some key questions to be asked once the network is up and running, and more expeditions go out there: Could these frequencies change somehow the known conditions of the moon? Could gravity conditions change something? How could this affect the astronauts who will be exposed to conditions infinitely different from earth?

We don’t know all of this yet, but we are looking forward and craving to know more about it!

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