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A largely unknown but interesting fact that’s gotten lost over time is only one phone call has ever been made to our Moon. The event occurred on July 20, 1969, when President Richard Nixon called astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin to congratulate them on becoming the first humans to set foot on the Moon, making this the longest-distance phone call ever. In the future, we could very well see more of these types of calls being made, since the Moon is set to receive its own mobile network in the not-too-distant future.

The German cable and communications company Vodafone Germany is collaborating with Finnish-based telecommunications firm Nokia to construct the first ever 4G network on the Moon. The announcement was made last week at the 2018 Mobile World Congress show in Barcelona, Spain, where the Moon was one of the event’s major reoccurring themes. The network will be built in 2019, and support a private lunar rover mission by a Berlin-based research team called Part Time Scientists (aka PTScientists).

“This project involves a radically innovative approach to the development of mobile network infrastructure,” says Vodafone Germany CEO Hannes Ametsreiter. “It is also a great example of an independent, multi-skilled team achieving an objective of immense significance through their courage, pioneering spirit, and inventiveness.”

PTScientists has formed a coalition for privately-funded missions with companies like Vodafone, Nokia, and German automotive giant Audi. One of PTScientists’ teams participated in the Google Lunar X Prize, a private competition to the Moon, which will end this month without any official winners. While the Google Lunar X Prize competition is over, the PTScientists “Mission to the Moon” is just beginning. The group aspires to launch a lander with two small rovers from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on a SpaceX Falcon 9, in time for the 50th anniversary of the historic Apollo 11 Moon landing.

The Moon’s 4G network will support PTScientists twin Audi Quattro rovers and their lander ALINA (short for Autonomous Landing and Navigation Module). The research team will use these rovers to study the lunar rovers used by the Apollo 17 astronauts during their 1972 mission to the Moon’s Taurus-Littrow Valley. Vodafone selected Nokia to develop a space-worthy version of its Ultra-Compact Network, which will be the lighest ever made at just 2.2 lbs (one kilogram).

There won’t be any humans physically aboard for the mission, but the 4G network will lay out the foundation for future missions by giving people the capabilities of making and receiving phone calls to and from the Moon. Under the plan, PTScientists ALINA lander will utilize the 4G network to beam the first live HD video feed from the Moon’s surface. ALINA will use a signal operating in the 1800 MHz frequency band that “will be broadcast to a global audience via a deep space link that interconnects with the PTScientists server in the Mission Control Centre in Berlin,” according to a statement by the research group.

PTScientists CEO and founder Robert Böhme described the 4G network as a “crucial first step for sustainable exploration of the Solar System.” By using 4G connectivity, PTScientists will be able to beam data from the Quattro rovers to the ALINA lander without depleting energy reserves or requiring rovers be stationary when transmitting data, according to a mission description.

“This important mission is supporting, among other things, the development of new space-grade technologies for future data networking, processing, and storage, and will help advance the communications infrastructure required for academics, industry, and educational institutions in conducting lunar research,” says Nokia Chief Technology Officer and President of Bell Labs Marcus Weldon. “These aims have potentially wide-ranging implications for many stakeholders and humanity as a whole, and we look forward to working closely with Vodafone and the other partners in the coming months, prior to the launch in 2019.”

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