Strain is on NASA's Deep Space Network amid growing demand

One NASA official said the DSN was "oversubscribed" during NASA's Artemis I mission and that it was unwise to launch so many CubeSats alongside Orion.
Chris Young
One of the DSN antennas.
One of the DSN antennas.

NASA / JPL-Caltech 

A combination of decreasing NASA budgets and increasing demand is putting a strain on NASA's Deep Space Network (DSN), a report from SpaceNews explains.

The DSN will provide communications for NASA's upcoming Artemis Moon missions, and the space agency is already reliant on it for many science missions.

With the space agency's Artemis II mission scheduled for late 2024, officials are raising concerns about the network's increasingly strained capacity.

NASA Moon mission exposes DSN issues

The DSN is a system of antennas located in Australia, the US, and Spain. For years, it has successfully been used to communicate with spacecraft beyond Earth's orbit.

However, NASA officials have warned that the Artemis I mission strained the system so that future Artemis missions could dramatically expose the DSN's limitations.

During an August 29 meeting of the NASA Advisory Council’s science committee, Suzanne Dodd, director of the interplanetary network directorate at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, explained that the Artemis program could have a detrimental impact on other science missions.

"When Artemis comes online, everybody else moves out of the way, and it's an impact to all the science missions," Dodd explained.

This is illustrated by the amount of time NASA's Orion spacecraft required during the Artemis I mission. NASA has revealed that the uncrewed Orion capsule required 903 hours of DSN time, and eight CubeSats, launched as secondary payloads during that mission, required another 871 hours.

During that time, the James Webb Space Telescope lost 185 hours of DSN time. Science missions, overall, lost 1,585 hours. NASA also deferred maintenance on the DSN to free up an extra 509 hours for Artemis I.

NASA's DSN has been "oversubscribed"

The time allocated to the Artemis I CubeSats was severely scrutinized by the NASA Advisory Council’s science committee.

"I'm not sure who thought it was a good idea to put so many CubeSats on Artemis I," Dodd explained during the meeting. "I don’t think that's a good use when your DSN is oversubscribed."

This issue was exacerbated, Dodd explained, by the fact that much of the time allocated to the CubeSats was for "search and rescue" operations.

"We probably spent a lot of time looking for these CubeSats and things that didn't work that, in the future, I would recommend that we don't do,” she said, adding NASA should say, "if we don't hear your signal, your mission's over.”

None of these issues are likely to improve any time soon, though.

"We're nearly doubling the load on the DSN," Dodd continued. "The load is increasing and it's very stressful to us."

What's more, NASA has been dealing with decreased budgets, meaning it has allocated less funding toward operating the DSN at a time in which demand is consistently increasing.

The DSN's annual budget has fallen from $250 million in 2010 to $200 million today and is projected to continue to decrease. "Looking out to the 2030s, that really scares us on the DSN," Dodd exclaimed.

"We have reached a really critical point with the DSN's aging infrastructure," added Sandra Cauffman, deputy director of NASA's astrophysics division. "This scares us very much."

Vint Cerf of Google, also a committee member, added that the DSN "is in a deep deficit, and I think the only way we’re going to get out of it is to spend the necessary resources not only to recover capacity but to increase capacity."

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