Moon Wi-Fi: What challenges would it face?

31-03-2022 |   |  By Robin Mitchell

Aquarian Space has recently announced its intention to establish Wi-Fi for future moon missions, but is this goal realistic or just hot air! Why is establishing a quality connection with the moon essential, what challenges would it face, and is this another “hyperloop”?

Why is establishing a quality connection with the moon essential?

It can be said that one of the biggest disappointments with NASA is that despite having landed on the moon more than 50 years ago, we never continued our missions to establish a colony. Instead of creating moon bases and domes, we instead built many probes to visit the same boring red planet in the hope of finding life on what is essentially an extremely dead rock with little to no water.

Of course, there is no doubt that humanity will establish a colony on the moon in the future as we already have the technology to do so, and it won’t be long before someone with large sums of money (take a hint, Elon and Jeff), decides to just go and do it. But if there is one thing that is absolutely essential in long-distance missions, it’s having a good means of communication.

Current radio technology allows for high-quality telephone calls between the moon and Earth with the exception of a 3-second latency (there and back). While this latency doesn’t provide much of a problem for communication, the distance between the moon and Earth does introduce challenges when transferring large data files across. One of the challenges is that the large distance requires powerful antennas and sensitive receivers, as signal degradation can be significant.

But why is communication so crucial for a moon colony? There are multiple reasons for this, but it comes down to two main areas; safety and scientific findings. Regarding safety, having a large bandwidth allows for the streaming of technical data and high-quality video in real-time. This can be essential when trying to perform repairs or receive critical information promptly. If something goes wrong in the colony, it is desirable to have a fast response from Earth that can include intricate details such as technical drawings and instructions.

With regards to scientific data, having a high-speed connection allows for large amounts of data to be transferred. One of the key benefits of having humans on the surface of another world compared to probes is that humans can manipulate tools, make decisions on what might be interesting, and respond in real-time to events. In the case of moon exploration, digital equipment and research labs would see moon researchers gathering petabytes of data that would be invaluable to researchers on Earth. A weak communication link between Earth and the moon would see most of this data go waste.

What challenges would a Wi-Fi connection to the moon face?

In the interest of establishing a moon colony in the future, Aquarian Space recently secured $650K of seed funding to design and construct a high-speed broadband connection between the moon and Earth. While there would be a latency of around 3 seconds, the company plans on a connection speed of at least 100Mbps, operating 24/7.

This connection, called “Solnet”, would be established in 2024 using proprietary satellites to cover the northern hemisphere of the moon and a second launch in 2025 to cover the southern hemisphere. While little data has been released on how the company would achieve this, it is understood that Aquarian Space is in discussions with NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program, which includes protocols, data rates, and communication methods.

But what challenges would such a connection face? Starlink is SpaceX’s solution to space internet, and we can look at what challenges they faced to identify what problems a moon connection would face.

The first problem, by and large, would be the susceptibility to micro meteors and space debris. While the moon has far less junk around it than the Earth, debris from previous missions to the moon and the many meteors that fly around in space still present a challenge. Unlike the fibreoptic cables we have on Earth, having just two satellites would pose a significant risk to reliability. A piece of rock the size of a sand grain could disable communications, which would be hugely expensive to fix and force a moon colony to rely on a large ground-based antenna. Of course, the benefit of the moon being tidally locked to Earth means that a ground-based antenna will always see the Earth.

The second problem relates to visibility and depends on how the satellite orbits the moon. Ideally, a satellite in geostationary orbit allows for fixed ground-based antennas (this requires the minimum effort to install and maintain). However, such an orbit around the moon is impossible because the geostationary orbit of the moon (88,000km) is bigger than the moon’s Hill sphere (66,000km), meaning that a satellite at this altitude would fall towards the Earth. Thus, a moon satellite would need to orbit at a lower altitude, and this means that it will be moving relative to the sky (this requires tracking). As such, multiple satellites are needed to ensure proper connectivity at all times.

The third problem is that any issues the satellite faces require a crew to perform repair work, which may not be possible in the early stages of moon colonisation. Of course, there will be evacuation rockets and methods to get crew off the moon, but they will probably be limited to just evacuations and not maintenance of satellites in space.

Is this just another “hyperloop”?

While there is a need for a good communication link between the moon and Earth, it is unnecessary for the time being. It is far more important than boots are put on the surface and a colony made before high-speed communications are installed. That isn’t to say that this idea for a high-seed comms link is silly or far beyond our capabilities; on the contrary, it is probably one of the easier projects compared to the Curiosity lander with its powered descent.

But for the time being, such a project will unlikely take off until there is a real need. The high cost with little return and lack of a need for a comms link sees the project as somewhat wasteful, and even though the technical capability exists, there is no demand for such a system.


By Robin Mitchell

Robin Mitchell is an electronic engineer who has been involved in electronics since the age of 13. After completing a BEng at the University of Warwick, Robin moved into the field of online content creation developing articles, news pieces, and projects aimed at professionals and makers alike. Currently, Robin runs a small electronics business, MitchElectronics, which produces educational kits and resources.

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