Nokia, NASA to take 4G to the moon

It's a small cell for Nokia, a giant leap for interstellar communications.

Nokia said that it will send up a 4G LTE network in a box to establish a small cellular bubble on the moon as part of a NASA project with Intuitive Machines and Lunar Outpost later this year.

“We say the Q4ish time frame,” Thierry Klein, president of Bell Labs solution research at Nokia Bell Labs, told Fierce Networks at a Nobel Prize ceremony at the venerable New Jersey institution Tuesday. “If we don’t fly by April, we will fly after October, based on the lighting conditions on the moon, so that puts it at the end of the year,” he said.

Bell Lab's Thierry Klien shows off transcievers behind a lunar lander picture.
Thierry Klein holds a lunar user equipment (UE) unit in front of the lunar lander. (Photo by Dan Jones)

Launching from a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, the Intuitive Machines lander will separate from the craft and land on the south pole of the moon. The Nokia equipment is mounted on the 4-meter tall lander. Once it has touched down, the Nokia equipment will be switched on, creating a 4G “network bubble on the moon,” Klein said. “This is creating communication on the surface,” he explained, the results of which will be relayed back to Earth via a satellite connection.

The dual-redundant “network in a box” will support cell phone-like terminals carried by a rover developed by Lunar Outpost and a small “hopper” that can jump into craters and crevices on the south pole of the moon. The IM-2 lander mission will be searching for evidence of water on the surface of the moon in this particular area, Klein said. “The reason you want to go into a crater on the south pole is because that is where you expect to find water and ice,” Klein explained.

Photo by Dan Jones
The Lunar Outpost rover. (Photo by Dan Jones)

That is the part of the reason they need to time the launch right, so that the rover and hopper have maximum lunar daylight to carry out their mission and record the results. A entire lunar day can last as long as 29.5 Earth days, although Klein said that the lunar daytime would be equivalent to 13 to 14 Earth days at time of launch.

The IM-2 will be the second of the company’s landers on the moon. The first was landed on February 22, 2024, being the first commercial lander to ever touch down on the lunar surface. Naturally, it fell over on its side, although it did still manage to operate on the moon.

“Space is a risky business,” Klein admits. “We believe that even if [the IM-2] tips over, there’s a good chance that our equipment will still be working,” he said. The Nokia equipment has already been tested for the harsh conditions of the lunar surface in Colorado and Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands.

Photo by Dan Jones
The Nokia 4G lunar equipment. (Photo by Dan Jones)

Previous missions to the moon have used UHF radio and limited Wi-Fi for communications. This will be the first cellular network on the moon. NASA, he said, chose 4G as a tested cellular technology to use on the moon.

"If you believe in a lunar [future] with more human presence, more robotic assets, resource mining and drilling and all of that, then you definitely need more capacity, that might be the right time to move over to 5G,” Klein said.

“So that’s maybe a 2030 timeframe, “ he said. “My view is that NASA is going to be one to one-and-half generations behind commercial cellular.”