When Google launched its (now-defunct) Lunar X-Prize competition, a number of teams from around the world joined up to try and hit the deadline. The first German team, PTScientists, may have failed to hit the launch window Google specified, but it hasn’t given up on the larger mission. In fact, it’s partnering with Nokia and Vodafone to deploy a 4G solution on the moon to support PTScientists’ two Audi Quattro rovers and the ALINA (Autonomous Landing and Navigation Module) lander.
Let’s get the elephant out of the way first: Yes, there’s an awful lot of corporate branding slapped on this effort, but that’s honestly not surprising. The ESA, for example, had a 2016 budget of $ 6.25B compared with NASA’s still-incredibly-lean $ 19.65B in 2017. There’s just not the same amount of money available for this kind of project, and that makes corporate partnerships important.
Moving on to the details of the mission: In order to meet Vodafone’s design requirements, Nokia had to deliver a version of its Ultra Compact Network that weighed less than a kilogram. The ALINA lander will use 4G to beam the first live HD feed from the surface of the moon, using the 1.8GHz band. An space-mounted interlink will handle transferring the signal from the surface of the moon back to the Mission Control Centre in Berlin.
As for the mission itself, the plan is for the two Audio Quattro rovers to approach and examine the Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV) used in the final Apollo mission, Apollo 17. Like Apollo 17, the PTScientists are targeting a landing site in the Taurus-Littrow Valley. When that site was selected as the landing location for Apollo 17, NASA wanted to sample material from ancient impact crater ejections and a much younger layer of volcanic material. There were multiple types of material of dramatically varying age found within the mission site, and the LRV was critically important to the scientific survey objectives of Apollo 15, 16, and 17.
Revisiting the LRV, to presumably check on how its weathered the intervening decades, probably won’t tell us much as far as a pure science workload, but that doesn’t mean the two rovers won’t have their own scientific workloads. Not much has been revealed about those yet, but the rovers themselves weigh 30kg and can carry a 5kg additional payload. The rovers will also be controlled in real-time using joysticks and are outfitted with 3D depth-sensing cameras. Data is relayed through the ALINA lander using (you guessed it) LTE.
Bearing in mind PTScientists isn’t NASA and doesn’t have access to that kind of funding, the overall mission goals and plans the organization has described sound modest, but still interesting. Deploying a functional 4G network on the moon, even temporarily, isn’t something we’ve done before. It’ll be interesting to see what became of the rovers we parked on the lunar surface nearly 40 years ago. And bringing more companies into the realm of commercial spaceflight support could help bring down the cost of other mission components in the same way SpaceX has cut the price of actual launches.