Have you heard of NASA's Deep Space Network? It’s been described by the agency as "the largest and most sensitive scientific telecommunications system in the world."
The Deep Space Network consists of an array of giant radio antennas that support interplanetary spacecraft missions including a few that orbit the Earth and that are managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). These antennas provide the important connection for commanding spacecraft in space and receiving their never-before-seen images and data here on Earth.
Now, the Deep Space Network is about to get a long-awaited upgrade. The network has been in operation since 1963, supporting 39 missions regularly. The team behind it is now working to increase its capacity.
“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, deputy director of the Deep Space Network.
Currently, the network has antennas in three complexes evenly spaced around the world at the Goldstone complex near Barstow, California; in Madrid, Spain; and in Canberra, Australia. The antennas are also regularly used to conduct radio science.
In January 2021, a 13th dish was added to the network in Madrid that was named Deep Space Station 56 (DSS-56) and was the first to use the network's full range of communication frequencies in order to communicate with all the missions that the Deep Space Network supports.
Soon after, the team completed 11 months of critical upgrades to Deep Space Station 43 (DSS-43) in Canberra, the only dish in the Southern Hemisphere with a transmitter powerful enough to communicate with the Voyager 2 spacecraft.
“The refresh of DSS-43 was a huge accomplishment, and we’re on our way to take care of the next two 70-meter antennas in Goldstone and Madrid. And we’ve continued to deliver new antennas to address growing demand – all during COVID-19,” said JPL’s Brad Arnold, manager of the Deep Space Network.
Finally, 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 easier to track different missions at the same time. What does this mean for the future of space exploration? It means we are about to receive even better data from space allowing us to expand our knowledge of the Universe.