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One hemisphere of the Earth seen from the surface of the moon

How cellular networks will help us explore the Moon and Mars

20 February 2024


Nokia Bell Labs intends not only to establish the first cellular network on the Moon but also kickstart a new era of communications in planetary exploration.

When the IM-2 lunar mission makes its anticipated landing at the Moon’s south pole in 2024 under NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services initiative, it will deploy and operate a relatively simple network by Earth’s standards. A “network in a box,” containing a single Nokia base station with integrated radio and core functions, will connect the Intuitive Machines Nova-C lunar lander with two vehicles: Lunar Outpost’s MAPP rover, and Intuitive Machines’ Micro-Nova hopper. But the successful testing of this small network will set the stage for much more sophisticated and expansive networks on future missions to the Moon and eventually to Mars.

Nokia believes that in the future these networks will provide communications between astronauts and explorers, and they will link vast sensor grids and provide the connectivity needed to control fleets of robots and vehicles. These networks will be a key element in building off-world bases for human habitation, and they will be crucial for maintaining and operating those habitats after astronauts arrive. Cellular networks could even lay the foundation for a future lunar or Martian internet.

Robots, robots everywhere 

Lunar Outpost’s Mobile Autonomous Prospecting Platform, or MAPP, is scheduled to be one of the first robotic rovers to explore the Moon’s south pole. But it certainly won’t be the last. In fact, Lunar Outpost co-founder and CEO Justin Cyrus envisions a day when the Moon will be teeming with robots. These robots will perform dangerous, intricate or just-plain-mundane tasks, leaving astronauts to focus on science and exploration.


Justin Cyrus, CEO and co-founder of Lunar Outpost (Courtesy of Lunar Outpost)

Creating a permanent human settlement on the Moon will require building extensive infrastructure, Cyrus said. Not only do habitats need to be constructed, but roads must be laid, communication towers erected and launch pads built. These types of construction projects carry safety risks for workers on Earth, but on the Moon, they become significantly more dangerous. Only a thin spacesuit protects astronauts from the extreme temperatures, cosmic radiation and lack of atmosphere on the Moon. Even a seemingly minor accident could become catastrophic.

“We will need a robotic workforce as humanity pushes towards the stars,” Cyrus said. “Robots will not only build and maintain the infrastructure needed for humans to live on the Moon and Mars, but they will do a lot of the dirty work. They will change the tires on vehicles and wipe the dust off solar panels, allowing astronauts to focus on the important things.”

To maintain a robotic workforce, however, you need reliable, high-bandwidth connectivity. And that’s where cellular networking comes into play. 

The initial 4G/LTE networks deployed on the Moon will provide far more bandwidth than the ultra-high frequency (UHF) systems that have historically been used in space communications. Perhaps more significantly, 4G/LTE can easily enable “local” connectivity on another world. Typically, space-based communications have relied on links directly back to Earth, but because of the vast distances in space, this introduces massive latency into the connection. A transmission takes about 1.5 seconds to reach Earth from the Moon, while a transmission from Mars to Earth experiences 5-20 minutes of delay. 

Trying to coordinate a robotic workforce from Mission Control on Earth would be difficult without the proper technology, Cyrus said. For example, one of the newest robots Lunar Outpost has developed – officially called the HL-MAPP but affectionately known as Hound – is designed to be a heavy excavator that will clear landing sites for future spacecraft to the Moon and Mars. Controlling multiple Hounds remotely from Earth would be painstakingly slow as each command and its confirmation would require at least a 3-second trip to the Moon and back. For Mars, that wait time could be up to 40 minutes. 



  • Nokia Bell Labs intends to deploy the first cellular network on the Moon as part of the IM-2 mission, named after partner Intuitive Machines.
  • Working with NASA’s Tipping Point initiative, Nokia intends to prove that cellular connectivity can support mission critical communications on future lunar or Martian missions.
  • Nokia Bell Labs has designed a space-hardened 4G/LTE network that will connect two lunar vehicles – Lunar Outpost’s MAPP rover and Intuitive Machines’ Micro-Nova hopper – to the Nova-C lunar lander on the Moon’s surface.
  • IM-2 is planned for 2024, though a specific launch window has not been set.
  • Nokia is also one of 14 companies selected by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) to participate in 10-Year Lunar Architecture (LunA-10) program, which will design an integrated multi-service architecture to support a future lunar economy.

The HL-MAPP, or Hound, Lunar Outpost’s heavy-excavation robot designed to build future lunar and Martian infrastructure (Courtesy of Lunar Outpost)

With cellular networks, the Hounds would all connect to the same lunar-surface network. With the ability to communicate instantaneously, they would coordinate their actions in real time. This would allow them to operate efficiently and avoid accidents when acting autonomously. And at any moment, a nearby astronaut could assume control when a problem arises. 

“Failures on the lunar surface can lead to catastrophic consequences,” Cyrus said. “We can notably lower the probability of failures occurring by having reliable, robust communication technology that not only allows these rovers to interact with each other but also interact with humans on the surface. This is how you avoid potentially dangerous situations.”

An industrial campus off-world

To get an idea of what a large-scale network operation on the Moon or Mars might look like, you can look right here on Earth.

“By and large, a lunar or Martian habitat in 10, 15, 20 years will look very similar to a sophisticated terrestrial industrial campus, such as a port or large-scale mining operation,” said Thierry E. Klein, President of Bell Labs Solutions Research at Nokia. “You will have humans and machines working in close proximity. You will have vast sensor networks. You will have people in constant voice, video and data communication with one another. These are the applications that keep workers safe and productive on Earth, and they will be the same applications that will keep astronauts safe and productive as they live on other planets and explore space beyond Earth.”


Theirry E. Klein, President of Bell Labs Solutions Research at Nokia

The most critical network application, Klein said, will be the most old-school service of them all: voice. Astronauts will need to remain in constant contact, but their conversations won’t necessarily resemble the standard phone call. Voice communications will be integrated directly into astronauts’ helmets, allowing them to communicate in the vacuum on the Moon’s surface. 

Inside the habitat, astronauts will be able to use similar – if not the same – smartphones and tablets they use on Earth, but they may come to rely heavily on wearable devices, which would allow them to remain in contact while keeping their hands free for work.

Sensors will be everywhere at a lunar or Martian base to capture environmental and operational data.  This information will be sent over the cellular network. There will be a constant stream of telemetry data from biometric sensors in spacesuits and IoT sensors in vehicles, robots and machines. Structural and atmospheric sensors would monitor the integrity of the habitat. Cameras would document experiments, send live feeds from exploratory missions and monitor the activities at worksites. All the sensor and camera data will be collected at an edge cloud infrastructure connected to the cellular network where all the information is processed and analyzed for real-time insights and decision-making using sophisticated AI and machine learning algorithms. Analyzing this data locally on the lunar or Martian surface is key. Because of the bandwidth limitations of direct-to-Earth links, only the most scientifically relevant information or critical operational data will be sent back to mission control on Earth.


The 4G/LTE network could use its cellular-based positioning capabilities to monitor the location of vehicles, robots and astronauts. As 5G is introduced, its more precise positioning features would boost the system’s accuracy and support precise navigation and localization.

Finally, the cellular network and its supporting technologies could be used to set up an off-world enclave of the internet. Astronauts could lead virtual tours of the habitat for school groups on Earth. Lunar scientists could collaborate with their colleagues at other Moon bases using extended reality (XR) – or even with experts back on Earth (though with considerable delay). Colonists wouldn’t be completely isolated from their loved ones back home as they could use the same texting services and social media apps as they do on Earth.

An extraterrestrial service provider 

Another similarity with Earth networks will likely carry over to the Moon and Mars: the service provider.

The sheer complexity of establishing a sophisticated communication solution on new worlds means that these networks will need to be permanent, which will eventually lead to the rise of lunar and Martian service providers, said Nokia Bell Labs’ Klein. 

“Just think about the scale of operations on the Moon over the next 20 years,” Klein said. “There will be multiple missions in a single year run by different space agencies and even commercial ventures. There will be bases in different regions of the Moon. Having every single mission set up their own communications systems would make no sense economically. Instead, they will need to use the same infrastructure in the same locations and interlink all the different bases on the lunar surface. That is the role of a service provider.”

Exploring new worlds in our solar system might seem like the stuff of science fiction, but the communications systems we use to do so might seem strangely familiar, Klein said.

“If I’m traveling to another country for a long period, the first thing I do is a get a local SIM card with a local data plan for my smartphone,” Klein said. “Astronauts will essentially be replacing their Earth SIM cards with lunar and Martian SIM cards. They’ll just have to travel a lot farther to use them.” 

Nokia is networking the Moon

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