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Connecting ESA’s 5G/6G Hub to the Moon

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Published on Tuesday, 03 May 2022

Recent times have made us all too familiar with the dreaded delay on a video call. The screen freezes, the audio crackles, and the ability to function in a remote environment becomes a question mark. The technology that is there to help us becomes a risk factor, and latency is an ever-present enemy. Take that same scenario, put it on the Moon, and the stakes get exponentially higher. One can’t wait for a better connection when a lunar rover is headed for a cliff, which makes latency a crucial challenge to realising the dream of an infrastructure on the Moon. 

The answer to this challenge on Earth is continuously upgrading communications technology, and telecommunications satellites play a crucial role in our infrastructure, enabling seamless and ubiquitous connectivity to even the most remote corners of the Earth. What is experienced much less widely is the improvement that these same infrastructures have caused in off-world communications. Today students can have video chats with ESA astronauts on the ISS!

Now with the next generation of 5G and 6G technology looming, the possibilities offered by the speed and data volume change the game everywhere, even on the Moon. The key to accessing this potential though is interoperability and economies of scale. A seamless link between terrestrial, satellite, and space communications infrastructure using a unified standard such as 5G is crucial to ensure that everything and everyone stays connected, wherever they go, even to the future lunar human settlements.

That is why engineers recently conducted a series of tests to demonstrate how to switch between 5G terrestrial links, satellites, and a simulated lunar infrastructure. To do this, researchers from the University of Luxembourg’s Interdisciplinary Centre for Security, Reliability and Trust (SnT) established an end-to-end 5G data communications link between their 5G-SpaceLab and ESA’s 5G/6G Hub located at Harwell in the UK.

In the first test, the engineers connected commercial 5G standard-compliant smartphones to the 5G radio access networks at both ends, and verified the terrestrial connection between the 5G core networks. Then, ESA’s end of the connection was rerouted via satellite to demonstrate the vertical interoperability of satellite and terrestrial systems. 

Infographic depicting the links that the text describes

Finally, the SnT end of the connection was passed through a lunar communications channel emulator, developed by their researchers to mimic the communications delays experienced by a data trunk link between Earth and the Moon. Using such setup, engineers attempted to steer a rover trundling across the lunar surface. The accumulated latency over the terrestrial, satellite and emulated lunar communications infrastructure caused a round-trip delay of three to four seconds between the issuing of the rover instruction and the rover response.

Jorge Querol, who coordinates the 5G-SpaceLab at the University of Luxembourg, said: “5G and 6G are playing a key role on the development of future complex communications systems in space. Future lunar activities such as resource exploitation and human settlements will require such communications systems for their safe, reliable, and efficient operation. The purpose of connecting both labs was to successfully demonstrate lab federation and technology interoperability. Using the ESA 5G/6G Hub enabled us to combine real-time over-the-satellite transmission to our lunar communications emulation facility.”

Antonio Franchi, Head of ESA's 5G/6G Strategic Programme, said: “5G and 6G technology is predicted to generate staggering benefits for economies worldwide over the next decade, including autonomous vehicles, industrial automation, and telehealth. Telecommunications satellites will play a crucial role in enabling the ubiquitous connectivity on which 5G and 6G networks rely. Our demonstration of the seamless switching between a terrestrial network and a space-enabled network shows the great promise of this technology.”