Next time you see the moon in a clear night sky, internet connectivity probably won’t immediately spring to mind.
You might imagine an unoccupied ball of rock orbiting Planet Earth wouldn’t need much in the way of high-speed broadband.
Yet you’d be wrong.
Following last year’s launch of the Artemis 1 rocket, NASA has committed itself to developing a lunar internet network capable of connecting with Earth at speeds of 100Mbps.
For good measure, there’ll also be a 4G mobile network on the moon’s surface.
Compare that to remote corners of the UK, where 3G is the best you’ll get on your phone and internet speeds struggle to reach 10Mbps, and you might wonder what’s going on.
In fact, the proposed lunar communications network simply demonstrates what can be achieved when you direct enough funding towards installing a broadband network…
Moon and me
Having ignored the moon for almost half a century, NASA is now committed to establishing a permanent base camp on what’s being referred to as Earth’s eighth continent.
Obviously, astronauts will need to be able to post selfies, ideally with a caption along the lines of “on a different planet” or “one small selfie”.
Joking aside, dependable communications will enable base camp occupants and visiting scientists to share their explorations and research with colleagues back on terra firma in real time.
As well as permitting live HD video feeds, LunaNet will power GPS explorations and could underpin a standard time – MST, perhaps.
The lunar internet would underpin autonomous robotic vehicles as they explore hard-to-reach regions, providing live feedback on everything from water levels to signs of cellular life.
Satellites will act as relays between ground stations on the moon and on Earth. NASA and the European Space Agency are both currently developing lunar telecoms infrastructure.
This network also has a crucial role to play in planned human missions to Mars in the mid-2030s.
Why can’t we achieve similar speeds on Earth?
It will be galling for some readers to consider 100Mbps connections on the moon, when parts of the UK are struggling along with ADSL connections of around 10Mbps.
When LunaNet goes live next year, its speed will eclipse 70 per cent of Welsh domestic broadband connections, compared to just nine per cent of London households.
Residents in rural areas have always endured disproportionately slow connections, because upgrading exchanges and lines is proportionally costlier than in densely populated urban areas.
Despite schemes like Fibre Community Partnerships, it’s often not cost-effective to run high-speed broadband cables to a handful of cottages three miles from the nearest village.
There are also fewer new-build homes in sparsely populated regions than in urban ones. New houses tend to be pre-cabled with line speeds even astronauts would envy.
Bridging the digital divide isn’t being given the government or industry funding that would ensure every far-flung croft and cottage enjoys three-figure download and upload speeds.
By contrast, NASA receives over $25 billion each year, which is enough to build both rockets and impressively stable satellite-powered broadband networks.
Of course, satellite broadband has been an option available to rural residents on Earth for many years, but satellite-based internet poses a number of significant drawbacks.
If you’re struggling on an ADSL or Fibre to the Cabinet connection, you can only reflect that your need to stream Netflix isn’t as great as an astronaut’s need to provide live scientific data.
Or post a selfie. #outofthisworld