A German company that is planning to land on the Moon has announced it will set up what is essentially the first lunar cell phone tower to communicate with Earth.
Called Part-Time Scientists (PTScientists), the team hopes to place an unmanned lander and rover near the landing site of Apollo 17 in late 2018. And to stay in touch with Earth, the team will rely on LTE technology – used for mobile phone communications on Earth – rather than a more standard data relay system.
"We are cooperating with Vodafone in order to provide 4G LTE base stations on the moon," PTScientists engineer Karsten Becker told Space.com. The benefits of using LTE are that it uses less energy than traditional radio communications. This should mean that large amounts of data can more easily be sent without draining the batteries on the lander.
Theoretically, an astronaut with a phone could connect to the network. "That is absolutely the idea!" Robert Boehme, CEO of PTScientists, told IFLScience. "The whole idea here is to, for the first time, establish re-usable in-space infrastructure, cutting down the costs and complexity for future space entrepreneurs."
Originally, PT Scientists were one of the competitors in the Google Lunar Xprize. This is a competition for private companies to land on the Moon, and then travel across the surface, with prizes of $15 million up for grabs. However, they withdrew from the competition to go it alone.
To be eligible for the prize, the teams need to launch by December 2017 this year. The five finalists have launch contracts to get to the Moon, but whether they’ll make this deadline remains to be seen.
PTScientists have a contract to launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in late 2018. Their lander is called Alina, and will be used as a communications base station on the Moon.
“Our rovers are packed with sensors and equipped with high-definition cameras,” Becker said in a statement back in May. “We will be collecting a lot of scientific data on the Moon and the high-speed data connectivity that LTE gives us will enable the rovers to communicate with Alina to send that valuable data back to Earth.”
In that same statement, CEO of Vodafone Germany, Hannes Ametsreiter, said they wanted the system to be up and running by the time Elon Musk’s SpaceX sent private passengers to orbit the Moon.
Musk had originally said this would happen in 2018, although that looks unlikely given that their Crew Dragon spacecraft won’t launch for the first time until summer 2018. But perhaps when astronauts do make it there, they will quite literally be able to phone home.