Between a rock and a hard place: A Bell Labs researcher designs lunar cellular network

Between a rock and a hard place: A Bell Labs researcher designs lunar cellular network Sandro Lanfranco

Sandro Lanfranco is designing the most important mobile network of his life — the network that will make the first cellular connection on the Moon.

It’s an awesome task that requires a team effort of researchers and engineers from across Nokia to prepare for the monumental maiden mission later this year. For example, there’s principal engineer Luis Maestro, who is responsible for the system architecture of the project, and reliability scientist Holly Rubin, whose job is to think of – and try to prevent – everything that could go wrong in this risky mission.

Then there is the Nokia Bell Labs researcher who is tasked with leading the design of the hardware that will be used on this otherworldly endeavor. That job falls to veteran Nokia engineer Lanfranco. He will make sure that Nokia’s network hardware withstands the environmental stresses of its journey to the lunar surface, and once it gets there, that it operates as required.

The network Lanfranco has helped design is a critical part of Intuitive Machines’ IM-2 mission. Working within NASA’s Tipping Point initiative, Nokia Bell Labs intends to prove that cellular connectivity can support mission critical communications on future lunar or Martian missions.

It’s a momentous challenge and one that Lanfranco excitedly embraces. He sees his role as being one of the Nokia pioneers in the emerging lunar economy that would include supporting a semi-permanent presence of astronauts, the deployment of scientific experiments, industrial construction and resource mining projects and fully automated robotic operations.

“All of this cannot happen without advanced communications. You need a network that can support automated and controlled operations,” he explained. “I really think Nokia is becoming the go-to technology leader for communications in space. And that is thanks to the project to deploy the first cellular network on the Moon.”

A Moonshot

Though Lanfranco has only been working on this project in recent years, the seeds of his lunar network hardware design were sown more than a decade ago. Some of his early work at Nokia centered on picocell designs that add capacity in dense urban deployments and have become a fixture in today’s terrestrial networks. That same picocell design shares similarities with the one being deployed on the Moon. The lunar hardware leverages the picocell concepts that focus on optimized size, weight and power consumption.

“When I worked on that project 10 years ago, I never could have imagined that it would someday be used on the Moon,” he said, with a laugh.

For it to succeed, though, it requires a feat of engineering that cuts to the core of Lanfranco’s job: to “harden” the hardware components of a typical terrestrial 4G/LTE network and modify it for space operations. Since Nokia’s mission seeks to establish the viability of cellular technologies for future planetary exploration, the goal is to use existing 3GPP standards-based technologies as much as possible to create fully self-deployed systems that require minimal human intervention to operate, instead of building proprietary cost-prohibitive solutions that would hinder future adoption. The components and materials used in Nokia’s network equipment are designed to withstand inhospitable conditions on Earth, but those conditions are nothing compared to the vacuum, radiation and temperature extremes of the lunar surface. It requires a delicate balancing act: using standard terrestrial components wherever possible while re-engineering others for space operation.

That is no easy task. In addition to the extreme environmental conditions on the Moon, there are challenges to reduce the weight and size of the equipment to meet the payload constraints of the mission. Electrical discharge and thermal management issues need to be considered since they present unique problems in the vacuum of space. And every system needs to be fully automated and self-healing. After all, in an uncrewed mission, there are no technicians on the Moon who could fix or upgrade the equipment if needed.

The system has been optimized for maximum success in the extreme lunar environment it will face. For example, the mechanical and electrical design has been proven to overcome the “multipaction effect,” a process that happens only in space in which electrons and radiation potentially interact to produce an electrical discharge that could damage and even destroy a radio frequency device.

But when it comes to space, there always remains an unknown.

“We have worked extremely hard to ensure that the system will operate according to plans, but space is a notoriously hard place,” Lanfranco said. “So, we are looking forward to executing the mission, gathering key information that we can use for future iterations and solutions.”

Boldly going places

Lanfranco was born and raised in Turin, Italy, focusing on telecommunications technology in high school and then earning his Master of Science in electrical engineering at Politecnico di Torino. After a year as an exchange student in Sweden, and a brief summer job in Japan, he got a job at Nokia in Finland and stayed there for 11 years before moving to California in 2009. He now lives in the Bay Area with his wife and seven-year-old son.

As a child, Lanfranco said he liked watching Star Trek and other science fiction shows, but he never considered himself a space geek or dreamt of becoming an astronaut.

“In my career, I’ve liked building things that never existed before — things that demonstrated some kind of ‘first’,” he explained. “I must say that space is not something that has always been in the back of my mind. It wasn’t so much space that attracted me to this project, but the idea of doing something new that had never been attempted. The most satisfying thing for me is solving the problems for a new environment and then seeing the solution work there. It could be space, or it could be under the sea or whatever.”

In his 26-year Nokia career, he’s been focused almost exclusively on hardware and radio designs and was a visiting scholar of radio frequency engineering at the University of California San Diego for a semester in 2005.

This expertise led him to the Moon project in 2018, first as a side project and now as a full-time role in Nokia Bell Labs’ lunar program. This is how he plans for things to stay. “I definitely see myself continuing on this trajectory,” he said.

For now, he is laser focused on getting his hardware safely to the south pole of the Moon and having it operate properly there.

“When you are a researcher, you don’t always get to succeed. Sometimes you develop things that don’t get put in production,” he said. “In this case, the lunar network is actually happening. It’s very satisfying.”

One small step

The upcoming Intuitive Machines IM-2 mission marks Bell Labs’ triumphant return to space exploration.

Bell Labs’ long association with NASA began with the 1962 launch of Telstar 1, the first orbiting communications satellite to transmit TV signals. Two years later, a pair of Bell Labs researchers discovered cosmic microwave background radiation, which became the experimental proof of the “Big Bang” theory of the explosive origin of the universe.

Bell Labs was later responsible for system analysis and evaluation for “Project Mercury,” the first U.S. program to put a man in space, and it also offered technical advice to the Gemini and Apollo programs, which eventually landed the first man on the Moon.

IM-2 is the beginning for a new era in Nokia’s space ambitions and this latest chapter in Nokia Bell Labs’ space endeavor could set the stage for many more sequels. The network adapted for this relatively short mission to the lunar south pole could become the precursor to all future cellular networks on the Moon and Mars.

“Ultimately, communications will be the enabler for the lunar economy,” Lanfranco said. “And we are becoming a major player in this field.”