If a phone buzzes on the moon and no one’s there to answer it, does it make a sound? What does it matter, it’s bound to make news.
On Tuesday, the phone companies Vodafone and Nokia said that they planned to build a cellular network in space to support what would be the first privately funded moon landing, planned for next year. The announcement earned headlines around the world, but much more would have to be done to make the plan a reality.
The companies vowed to produce what would be groundbreaking technology, weighing in at less than a kilogram, to provide a fourth-generation, or 4G, cellular network, which a pair of lunar vehicles would use to communicate with a base station and ultimately transmit high-definition video back to Earth.
The rovers and the network technology would be transported aboard a rocket owned by SpaceX, the company founded and run by the billionaire Elon Musk, as part of the “Mission to the Moon,” an ambitious plan by PTScientists, a Berlin-based company. Once on the moon, the rovers will carefully approach NASA’s Apollo 17 rover, which was delivered there in 1972, without damaging the overall site.
The cellular network promises not only an energy-efficient form of communication, but also one that has been widely tested, according to Robert Böhme, the chief executive and founder of PTScientists.
“It’s a technology that’s been used on more than a billion devices globally, so it really is the industry standard technology,” he said in a telephone interview.
But, if recent history is any guide, don’t expect everything to go exactly according to plan. For one, Mr. Böhme and his colleagues will be testing equipment that is expensive or otherwise difficult to replace.
“We have to be really careful, really efficient and not screw up,” he said. “And doing something for the first time is kind of a challenge there.”
The company also knows the difficulties of meeting a deadline. After winning two awards totaling $750,000 as part of the Lunar X Prize, a Google-run space exploration challenge, PTScientists withdrew last year when it became clear the company could not reach the moon in time.
And, in fact, no one did: The Lunar X Prize competition effectively ended in January after it became clear that none of the five remaining teams would reach the moon by the March 31, 2018, deadline.
“This literal ‘moonshot’ is hard, and while we did expect a winner by now, due to the difficulties of fundraising, technical and regulatory challenges, the grand prize of the $30M Google Lunar X Prize will go unclaimed,” Peter H. Diamandis, the foundation’s founder and executive chairman, and Marcus Shingles, the chief executive, said in a statement at the time.
“It’s incredibly difficult to land on the Moon,” they noted, plainly.
Regulations have also complicated such efforts. While many companies are motivated by potential business opportunities there, the parties to an international agreement signed more than 50 years ago have done little to address how they might proceed.
Such opportunities have long been on Mr. Böhme’s mind and contributed in part to the decision to pursue the cellular technology.
“I want to have people be able to build up on the technology,” he said. “It’s like with the internet: provide the right technology foundation and services will pop up.”