The Deep Space Network

In previous posts, I have discussed Curiosity and Space Exploration. The importance of Space Exploration covered information on the International Space Station. When I was a child, I never thought about logistics of interplanetary communication. When I was first re-introducing myself to the topic, I stumbled upon the Deep Space Network (DSN).

Well what does that mean?

According to JPL.NASA.GOV, the DSN is defined as “…NASA’s international array of giant radio antennas that supports interplanetary spacecraft missions, plus a few that orbit Earth” (n.d.). The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) based out of Pasanda, California operated the DSN. It is the only global spacecraft communication network. The Deep Space Network is able to communicate with interplanetary missions. It is also used for Earth-based missions. The most known example of an Earth mission would be the International Space Station. (Did you know that you can see the ISS without anything but your eye?) The DSN is a strong system to allow us to communicate with spacecrafts millions and billions of miles away. Yet, the signals are weak.

How does the DSN work?

The Deep Space Network is composed of three separate locations, strategically placed around the globe: near Barstow, CA, Madrid, Spain and Canberra, Australia. Between the three locations is a network of large radio antennas. Equipped at each location is an enormous antenna. Many other antennas are also smaller in size but better in cost. Thus, they are the primary antennas. When emergencies occur, the large antenna is utilized. NASA may even collaborate with others, depending on the circumstance.

As the Earth rotates, the three locations allow for constant communication. Once the spacecraft dips below the horizon of one location, the next will be able to pick the signal.

But, the speed in which we receive communications from our varying spacecraft is s l o w! As many articles titles mention, the Deep Space Network is stuck with broadband. A recent example would be about Mars. Currently, it takes close to 8 hours to download 1 terabyte of information. Or speeds of 1.5 megabits per second. And that is Mars. The further the distance, the longer it takes for both the information to be sent through space and then slow download speeds. The spacecraft, New Horizons, tasked with a flyby of Pluto has had its mission extended. The distance between Earth and it is now much, much further. Can you imagine how slow that is?

There are different spacecrafts. Which one is relying data?

At the time of writing this blog post, the Deep Space Network was communicating with New Horizons and many other spacecrafts too. A different time I checked the DSN during the time I took to write this, we were also getting data from Voyager 2. This is one of the 2 satellites in interstellar space. However, most of the data was coming from the various Mars spacecrafts. Check out the DSN Now to see in REAL-TIME which spacecraft we are communicating with. It shows whether NASA is receiving data or sending commands to the spacecraft. It’s awesome. I personally would never have thought this sort of information would be available to the public. I keep the link up constantly and just check it ever so often. It’s quite a fascinating resource.

What if I want to visit?

You can! As I mentioned above, there are 3 locations around our Earth. Check out this link for more detailed information:

No matter which location, there is no cost associated but the details about each location varies. I know what I want to do the next time I am in California!

Learning about the Deep Space Network is a fun and exciting topic. I am excited for the changes that are bound to happen with the increase of technology. It’ll be an interesting journey.

Where did I get the information?