Why is NASA considering installing a WiFi network on the Moon?

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The United States will return to the Moon very soon with the intention of staying there. Astronauts will need a communication and navigation solution. NASA would like to take the opportunity to install a high-speed network and the results of its study could also help on Earth.

In 1969, one small step from Neil Armstrong made history. The American astronaut, who died in 2012, will forever remain the first man to set foot on the Earth satellite. The excitement of the 1960s and 1970s allowed 12 astronauts, all Americans, to walk on the moon. Half a century later, the satellite is once again at the heart of the concerns of the great powers: several major programs with the Moon as a target are under development and the United States have set their return for 2024 with Artemis.

This project follows the Apollo missions and should allow the superpower to establish “A long-term presence”. On site, an Internet-type architecture called LunaNet will have to meet the needs (communication, navigation) of the forces involved. NASA does not seem to want to be satisfied with this project and confirms that it is studying the possibility of installing a WiFi network on the Moon. Located near Cleveland, Ohio, the Glenn Research Center is one of NASA’s ten space centers and would like to take this opportunity to fight digital inequalities on Earth. “This represents an excellent opportunity to develop solutions to the challenges we will face when we send astronauts to the Moon under the Artemis program”, explains Mary Lobo, director of the incubation and technological innovation department at the Glenn Research Center.

On Earth, routers on streetlights

An article published earlier this month on the NASA website indicates that the United States space agency is considering using its lunar program to improve Internet access on Earth. She believes that the digital divide is a “Socio-economic concern across the United States” that the pandemic has particularly highlighted. A study by the National Digital Inclusion Alliance found that about 31% of homes in the city of Cleveland – where the NASA hub is located – do not have broadband access. The revelations of this investigation alerted the Greater Cleveland Partnership, an organization that works for economic development, which requested the support of the Glenn Reasearch Center to “Examine the technical obstacles to digital inequalities”.

NASA therefore decided to work on a way to solve “Two problems” : that of a means of communication on the Moon and that of a more efficient network on Earth. The first results of the study, which take into account the technical challenges of the lunar environment, reveal that installing WiFi routers on around 20,000 street lights or electricity poles would solve Cleveland’s connectivity problems. “By spacing the routers 100 meters at the most, this approach would make it possible to obtain a download speed [descendante] of about 7.5 Mb / s in a four-person household ”, specify the researchers. Head of the research team, Steve Oleson concedes that such speed is not enough for streaming in 4K, but that it would be enough “For schoolwork, make IP calls and other activities” in line. He adds that by spacing the routers between 50 and 75 m from each other, it would be possible to significantly improve the bandwidth.

Wifi on the Moon, but what for?

With its head in the stars, NASA does more than define the way forward on Earth. The lunar part of the study provides for the installation of a base in the Malapert massif, a large crater located near the south pole of the Moon. According to the agency, this area meets the “Requirements” in terms of sun exposure and usable resources, and helps establish communications with Earth. Its Wifi network would be connected to the Deep Spaces Network and all the modules present on site must be connected. These can be gateways, landers, habitats or even rovers.

The lunar base imagined by the United States Space Agency. © NASA

NASA nevertheless remains cautious and recalls that it “There are many unknowns in terms of WiFi connectivity on the Moon”. In addition, it does not have a developed electrical network or even a lunar Internet. Supplying the network does indeed appear to be one of the main challenges that the agency will have to take up before offering its Wi-Fi network. On the other hand, Steve Oleson notes that his field is much less subject to interference. NASA specifies that “The team recommends mounting the routers on several 24-foot poles [7,3 mètres] attached to habitats, landers or other large equipment “. She adds that “Unlike a single large tower, this approach would provide astronauts in habitats with network stability, while mobile explorers could move between routers”.

We can therefore see that NASA wants to develop a “mesh network” in order to offer sufficient connection to the four corners of cities, or to the Moon. The presence of a WiFi network would come to the aid of the teams on site, allowing them to communicate more easily, to transmit data, to remotely control lunar rovers or to improve the quality of live broadcasts. This is only a concept, but this lunar WiFi project will continue to be developed and NASA hopes it can help American cities, and even the most remote regions of the world.

Before Wifi, NASA had developed a high speed connection between the Earth and the Moon

Note that the desire to offer a broadband connection on the Moon is not new. As early as 2013, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and NASA had been able to exchange data between the Earth and the Moon using four different telescopes. The latter, installed in New Mexico, transmitted laser beams through columns of air to give life to the LLCD (Lunar Laser Communication Demonstration) project. The data traveled the 384,633 kilometers between the Moon and Earth with a download rate of 622 megabits per second. They also transmitted data from Earth to the Moon at 19.44 megabits per second. “Communicating at high speeds from the Earth to the Moon with laser beams is a challenge due to the distance of 400,000 kilometers the light beam disseminates”, explained Mark Stevens of MIT Lincoln Laboratory.

In addition to Wifi, NASA has also chosen to call on Nokia to deploy a 4G network on the Moon. She recalled in passing that “Communications will be[aient] a crucial element of the Artemis program ”. In addition to the United States, other great powers such as China, Russia, Europe or India aspire to return to the Moon and will be keen to present comparable projects.

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