Mobiles on the moon? Nasa prepares trial for takeoff

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Grnd cntrl 2 mjr tm

After conquering the farthest corners of the globe, mobile phones are now destined for the final frontier - space.

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Even in the cosmos there will be no escaping the ringtone as Nasa and the British National Space Centre (BNSC) prepare to trial a mobile phone network for the moon.

Astronauts and robots exploring the moon's surface will only be a text message away after the system goes live later this century.

The satellite system should ensure a full four-bar signal for lunar colonists living in the base Nasa wants to build at the south pole of the moon after 2020.

The stellar vision of the mobile's future even tops the effort that managed to get a text message to the top of Mount Everest.

Phone calls and other information would be bounced off satellites orbiting the moon for communication between colonists, the moon base and the earth.

The joint Nasa/BNSC MoonLite mission, due to be launched after 2012, will test a prototype version of the satellite phone network - similar to the Inmarsat network on Earth.

During the MoonLite mission a lunar orbiter would use the technology to transmit information about the structure of the moon back to earth from scientific instruments buried in the lunar soil.

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Director of space science at the BNSC, David Parker, said the early lunar system will be comparable to the "satellite phone network of the 1980s and 1990s on earth".

He said: "The robots and astronauts would be spread out from the base to do exploration and some sorts of comms infrastructure would be needed. MoonLite is taking the first step towards that network."

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The explorer will rely on the expertise of BNSC satellite specialists from Guildford, who have built 27 satellites to date, with Nasa making the communications module.

The final system would initially be served by one or two satellites providing coverage of the south pole, with scope for more satellites to be added as a greater range is required.

Data throughput in the MoonLite system would range from up to 3kbps for the downlink and up to 2kbps for the uplink.

The MoonLite mission proposal is undergoing a review of its science goals and costs before it is approved.

The UK recently published its Civil Space Strategy: 2008 - 2012 and beyond and set out a vision including: establishing an international space facility at Harwell, Oxfordshire - focusing on climate change, robotic space exploration and applications, closer involvement with international initiatives in space exploration to places such as the Moon and Mars and setting up a National Space Technology Programme.