NASA has too Many Spacecraft to Communicate With. Time to Build More Dishes

#NASA #Spacecraft #Communicate #Dish

NASA is a sprawling organization that has to talk to everything from politicians in Washington DC to space probes that have left the solar system.  Discussions with the first might be as simple as a written letter for informal conversation, while the second requires a high-power network of ground-based antennas.  Known as the Deep Space Network (DSN) this series of antennas spread over three continents is the backbone of NASA’s communications with its various space probes. Now the DSN is in the process of implementing a well-deserved upgrade.

Listen to this article

Part of the reason for that upgrade is the sheer number of spacecraft in deep space NASA has to communicate with.  Everything from Voyager to the Parker Solar Probe requires time on the antenna to relay data and receive instructions.  But with new missions launching at an increasing pace, the network must be beefed up in order to accommodate all the new communication links.

Currently, DSN supports 39 missions, but NASA has 30 additional missions in development, and not all of the existing missions will be phased out in the near future.  To ensure consistent communication no matter where the Earth is on its journey around the sun, the antennas supporting those 30 missions are evenly spread around the globe – in Madrid, Spain, Canberra, Australia, and near Barstow California. When not being used for communication directly, the antennas can serve as data collection platforms for radio science missions as well.

One major component of the upgrade needed to support all this work is the addition of 2 new antennas. The first, a 34-m wide dish named DSS-56 was commissioned in Madrid in January of this year. Also completed this year was an upgrade to DSS-43, a 70-m antenna located in Australia that is the only antenna in the Southern Hemisphere that is capable of sending messages to Voyager, which is currently outside of our solar system. 

DSS-43 won’t be the last 70-m antenna improvement either – its equivalents in Madrid and California are slated to receive upgrades soon as well.  Increasing the power of those antennas isn’t their only purpose.  With so much additional data being sent between handlers and spacecraft, increasing data transfer rates is another focal point of the network upgrades.  Eliminating frequency bands that specific telescopes are limited to will help the network utilize all of its resources to support all of its missions.  

Not only is the DSN getting technological upgrades, but it’s also trying a new management system that will better utilize the three sites spread throughout the world. Previously, on-site managers had managed the antennas at their site locally.  Now, there is a global hand-off protocol that managers call “Follow the Sun”, which allows personnel at each complex to run their entire network during their own “on” shift.  This has created cost savings as well as increased coordination between the sites as it requires regular knowledge transfer about local conditions and satellite quirks.  

Graphics posters showing the three 70-m antennas that are part of the DSN.
Graphics posters showing the three 70-m antennas that are part of the DSN.
Credit – NASA / JPL-Caltech

A lot of those cost savings from the new management architecture have gone into technological upgrades for the antennas themselves. With the pace of technological advancement in the communications field, there is plenty of room for improvement, but NASA has already shown that maintaining and even upgrading their internal communication network is one of the priorities.