Scientists bounce long-range message off the moon for first time

24 Nov 2021

Illustration of the LoRa moonbounce. Image: Lacuna Space

The LoRa experiment could help IoT research and future communication between the Earth and the moon.

Scientists have for the first time bounced a long-range (LoRa) message off the surface of the moon, indicating progress in the effort to make low-powered communication with Earth possible in the future.

The team of European scientists and licensed radio amateurs were able to use LoRa technology to shoot a radio signal towards the moon through the tried-and-tested Dwingeloo telescope operated by the Camras foundation in the Netherlands.

The four-member team included Jan van Muijlwijk and Tammo Jan Dijkema of Camras, Thomas Telkamp of IoT provider Lacuna Space and Frank Zeppenfeldt of the European Space Agency (ESA), which has many moon missions planned.

Nicolas Sornin, who co-invented the proprietary LoRa technology, said he had never dreamed that his technology would one day be used to send signals that travel all the way to the moon and back. “This is a fantastic experiment. I am impressed by the quality of the data captured,” he said.

“This dataset is going to become a classic for radio communications and signal processing students,” added Sornin, whose low-power wide-area network communication technology LoRa is a proprietary belonging of California-based semiconductor company Semtech.

Telkamp, who is the CTO of Lacuna Space, said that seeing the message come back from the moon was “exhilarating” and that the time taken for the round trip, 2.44 seconds, helped them calculate the distance between Earth and the moon with accuracy comparable to NASA.

“We even used the echo to see the shape of the moon, which we didn’t imagine we could,” he added. An in-depth overview of the entire experiment and results will be published as open data and presented at The Things Conference in Amsterdam in January next year.

Apart from being the first time a signal was bounced off the moon and returned to Earth, the experiment also set a new record for the furthest distance a LoRa message has ever travelled, at 730,360km.

It also marked the first time data was bounced off the moon using a small off-the-shelf radio frequency chip. Within the 2.44 seconds that it took the message to travel, the entire message was in space on its way from the Earth to the moon and back.

The message read ‘PI9CAM’, which is the call sign of the Dwingeloo telescope. The experiment suggests that long-distance communication between the Earth and the moon is possible in the near future once the IoT technology is scaled and further developed for more regular communication.

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic