NASA to upgrade Deep Space Network, improve linkages with probes beyond our solar system
In October 2020, astronomers sent out a series of commands to a spacecraft that is billions of kilometers away. This probe, the Voyager-2, has been flying around for over 44 years and it managed to hear the commands and answer the call. The Voyager-2 was launched in 1977 and when it managed to hear the commands and return the call, it was in a region beyond our Solar System.
This call was possible thanks to an upgraded 70-meter-wide radio antenna part of NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN) that essentially acts as a bridge between probes flying beyond Jupiter, the rovers on Mars, and other spacecrafts on asteroids and interstellar spaces. And NASA is planning to upgrade the DSN further to be able to communicate with more spacecrafts in areas that are further away, paving the way for evolving needs for space missions. And that’s not all that the DSN does, it also contributes by returning stunning pictures, crucial data, and more from these spaces beyond our solar system.
What exactly is the Deep Space Network?
The Deep Space Network is a network of antennas spread across the world that enables space missions to track, send commands to, and receive data from spacecrafts. It is managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and consists of three complexes - the Goldstone complex near Barstow (California), in Madrid (Spain), and in Canberra (Australia).
These antennas connect us to the probes, rovers and other satellites out in space and helps study planets, black holes, etc. It also tracks near-Earth objects. NASA recently upgraded the DSN by adding a 13th antenna to the network and this started working earlier this year. Called Deep Space Station 56 (DSS-56), this new 34-meter-wide (112-foot-wide) antenna dish in Madrid is an “all-in-one” antenna that uses a full range of communication frequencies. Just before this, NASA had updated the DSN 43 antenna that sent out the signal to the Voyager-2 that we mentioned in the beginning of this story.
“Capacity is a big pressure, and our antenna-enhancement program is going to help that out. This includes the building of two new antennas, increasing our number from 12 to 14,” said JPL’s Michael Levesque in a statement.
How JPL works with the DSN is like a relay. Since the antennas are spread across three continents, they “Follow the Sun”. Each complex takes turns in running the entire network for the day shift and then hands over controls to the next complex for the end of the day in that region. “Each site works with the other sites, not just during handover periods, but also on maintenance and how antennas are performing on any given day. We’ve really turned into a globally operating network,” Levesque explained.
The network has also been upgraded to receive multiple signals from a single antenna and then split them in the digital receiver to make it all easier to monitor and also serve different missions at the same time - like on Mars, the orbit is congested due to several orbiters and rovers.