NASA plans to install Wi-Fi on the moon to solve the digital divide on Earth

Remote office, online e-commerce, online education, mobile payment… For us who enjoy the digital dividend, these services are as natural as breathing and drinking water.

But in many places around the world, access to reliable and fast wireless Internet is still a luxury. They are on the unfortunate side of the digital divide, excluded from the information-based new economy, and deprived of opportunities for online education, shopping, entertainment, and socializing.

▲ Picture from: United Nations official website

In Cleveland, where the NASA Glenn Research Center is located, a study by the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) found that approximately 31% of households in the city do not have broadband access. Based on this research, the local economic development organization "Greater Cleveland Partnership" (GCP) contacted NASA's Glenn Research Center to find a solution to the problem.

▲ Night view of Cleveland at an altitude of 240 miles. Picture from: NASA

The Compass Lab at NASA's Glenn Research Center took up this challenge and tried to apply the lunar Wi-Fi framework, which is still in the hypothetical stage, to solve the digital divide on Earth and provide a reference for future lunar communications.

The so-called lunar Wi-Fi framework was developed for NASA's "Artemis" moon landing plan . The United States will return to the moon in 2024, and then establish a long-term strategic presence in the south pole of the moon-"Artemis Base Camp" (Artemis Base Camp). The base camp will include habitat, power systems and communication systems. At that time, in order to achieve better ground exploration, astronauts need to establish high-speed communications with lunar orbital platforms, landers, habitats, rover, etc.

▲ Concept map of Artemis Base Camp. Image from: NASA

Therefore, NASA plans to install routers on multiple 24-foot-long poles that are connected to habitats, landers, or other large hardware. Compared with a single large tower, this method will better ensure the network stability of the habitat, and mobile explorers such as astronauts can roam between routers.

Although the framework of Lunar Wi-Fi is conceptual, this concept has inspired people on Earth to explore more for networking. Similar "mesh networks" have been used on a small scale in communities such as Brooklyn, New York. Cleveland's network problem also postponed this line of thinking.

▲ Lamppost. Picture from: Fox News

Compass Lab compared the size of the local community with the Artemis base camp, trying to provide a case for the moon base by solving network problems on the earth. They connected Wi-Fi routers to approximately 20,000 lampposts or telephone poles. The interval between routers was no more than 100 yards. Each router provided connections for indoor and outdoor users within a 50-yard radius of the pole.

This method can provide download speeds of approximately 7.5 Mbps in a four-person home, but may require Wi-Fi repeaters to help old, low-performance devices connect indoors. Steve Oleson, head of the Compass Lab team pointed out :

This connectivity is sufficient to complete school, participate in virtual calls and other Internet-based activities, but not enough to support 4K streaming. If we move the router closer, 50-75 yards apart, this will greatly increase the bandwidth.

▲ Steve Oleson. Picture from: Fox News

On this basis, Cuyahoga County in Cleveland issued a request for proposals, hoping that companies can provide affordable Internet access solutions throughout the county. After all, about 31% of households in the city do not have broadband access. The City of Cleveland recently allocated $20 million for broadband expansion.

However, if the line of sight is moved from the ground back to the moon, there are still many unknowns about Wi-Fi connection. Although the moon has less interference than houses and tree-lined communities, it does not have the advantages of the earth’s existing infrastructure, electricity, feedback, and lunar internet, all of which need to be supplied.

▲ LunaNet concept rendering. Picture from: NASA

However, based on the lunar Wi-Fi framework to solve the earth's digital divide, such an attempt is meaningful in itself. It not only provides many benefits of the digital age for communities under-served by the Internet, but also provides decision-making information for future moon landing plans. Steve Oleson stated:

We are studying spacecraft all day, and the secondary benefit is that we have developed technology that can return to Earth. How to interconnect all these? You will not blindly design a wireless system for the moon, you will care about how to do it on the earth.

Marty McGann , executive vice president of publicity and strategy at GCP, also believes that NASA has indeed given a possible option for their community, "NASA's future-oriented solutions can solve the core problems of our community, which is really important for us."

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