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Nokia and NASA’s 4G lunar network will confuse radio astronomy

As you drive down the road leading to the Jodrell Bank Observatory, a sign asks visitors to turn off their cell phones, saying the Lovell telescope is so powerful it can detect a phone signal on Mars.

Radio telescopes are designed to be extremely sensitive. To quote the legendary astronomer Carl Sagan, “The total amount of energy outside the solar system ever received by all radio telescopes on planet Earth is less than the energy of a snowflake hitting the earth.”

The total energy now probably costs a few snowflakes, but it is still true that astronomical radio signals are usually of magnitude smaller than artificial ones. If Jodrell Bank could pick up interference from a phone signal on Mars, how would it handle an entire 4G network on the moon?

This is a problem that worries astronomers like me after Nokia of America received $ 1

4.1 million (£ 10.8 million) for the development of the first of its kind cellular network on the moon. The LTE / 4G network will aim to facilitate the moon’s long-term habitability by providing communication on key aspects such as lunar rovers and navigation.

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Network interference

Radio frequency interference (RFI) is the long-term nemesis of radio astronomers. Jodrell Bank – the earliest observatory for radio astronomy in the world that still exists – was created due to RFI. Sir Bernard Lovell, one of the pioneers of radio astronomy, found his job in Manchester prevented by RFI from passing trams in the city and persuaded the university’s botany department to let him move to their fields in Cheshire for two weeks (he never left ).

Since then, radio telescopes have been built more and more remotely in an attempt to avoid RFI, with the upcoming Square Kilometer Array (SKA) telescope being built in remote areas of South Africa and Australia. This helps cut out very common sources of RFI, including cell phones and microwave ovens. However, terrestrial radio telescopes cannot completely avoid space-based RFI sources such as satellites – or future lunar telecommunications networks.

RFI can be attenuated at the source with appropriate shielding and signal transmission accuracy. Astronomers are constantly developing strategies to reduce RFI from their data. But this increasingly relies on the goodwill of private companies to ensure that at least some radio frequencies are protected for astronomy.

The long-term dream of many radio astronomers would be to have a radio telescope on the far side of the moon. In addition to being protected from terrestrial signals, it will be able to observe at the lowest radio frequencies, which on Earth are particularly affected by a part of the atmosphere called the ionosphere. Low-frequency observation can help answer basic questions about the universe, such as what happened in the first few moments after the Big Bang.

The scientific case has already been identified by the Netherlands-China low-frequency explorer, a telescope reconfigured by the Queqiao relay satellite sent to the moon in the Chang’e 4 mission.

It’s not just 4G

Despite its interest in these radio projects, Nasa is also looking at commercial partnerships. Nokia is just one of 14 US companies with which Nasa is working in a new set of partnerships worth more than $ 370 million to develop its Artemis program, which aims to bring astronauts back to the moon by 2024.

The involvement of private companies in space technology is not new. And rights and mistakes have been discussed for a long time. Probably the biggest attraction is SpaceX’s Starlink satellites, which caused a stir among astronomers after their first major launch in 2019.

The images quickly began to appear with traces of Starlink satellites cutting through them – often overshadowing or obscuring the original astronomical targets.

Next generation radio telescope field.