NASA Is Building a Cell Phone Network on the Moon With Help From an Old Friend

This view of Earth rising over the Moon’s horizon was taken from the Apollo 11 spacecraft. NASA

While Apple, Verizon and Huawei race to usher the world into the age of 5G, pre-smartphone era telecom king Nokia (which no longer makes cellphones) is taking the retiring 4G technology to the moon.

Last week, Nokia’s research arm, Bell Labs, scored a $14.1 million contract from NASA to build the first LTE/4G communication network on the moon so that future lunar residents can talk and text to each other just like at home. And like on Earth, the network will eventually be upgraded to 5G. 

In the nearer term, the 4G network will allow astronauts to transmit data with each other on missions, control rovers remotely, navigate the lunar surface and stream high-definition video, Nokia said. The initial system is expected to be set up in late 2022.

“Reliable, resilient and high-capacity communications networks will be key to supporting sustainable human presence on the lunar surface,” the Finnish company said in a statement on Monday. “Commercial off-the-shelf communications technologies, particularly the standards-based fourth generation cellular technology (4G Long Term Evolution (LTE)) are mature, proven reliable and robust, easily deployable and scalable.”

But unlike 4G networks on Earth, which are powered by giant cell towers and radios, Nokia will construct the lunar network with small cell technology, which provides limited communication ranges but requires far less power than cell towers and is easier to transport in a spaceship.

Bell Labs is a U.S.-based engineering lab system born out of AT&T and formerly owned by Alcatel-Lucent. In 2016, Nokia acquired Bell Labs’ parent company in a deal worth $16.6 billion.

Bell Labs is a pioneer in developing 5G networks as well. As of March, the company had declared more than 3,000 patents for 5G related technologies.

Nokia is one of the 15 companies NASA recently picked out to help build a human base on the moon as part of the Artemis program. The space agency awarded a total of $370 million worth of contracts, including an $89.7 million contract to Lockheed Martin to test liquid hydrogen as a cryogenic propellant, a $53.2 million project commissioning SpaceX to transfer liquid oxygen propellant between tanks on a Starship spaceship, and an $86.2 million contract with United Launch Alliance (ULA) to test a smart propulsion cryogenic system using both liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen.

NASA’s Artemis program aims to land American astronauts on the moon by 2024 and establish a sustainable human presence there by 2028.

NASA Is Building a Cell Phone Network on the Moon With Help From an Old Friend