The Deep Space Network is in trouble

Editor’s note: Don Lincoln is a senior scientist at the Close National Accelerator Laboratory. He is the author of several scientific booksincluding the audiobook “The Theory of Everything: The Quest to Explain All Reality.” He also produces a series of science education videos. Follow him further Facebook. The opinions expressed in this comment are his own. View more opinion on CNN.

According to the venerable television program “Star Trek,” space is the final limit. While the challenges of human space travel are daunting, if humans can successfully colonize first the solar system and then the stars, our future is bright — full of unlimited resources.

Don Lincoln - Courtesy of Don Lincoln

Don Lincoln – Courtesy of Don Lincoln

We began the process of exploring the solar system, launching unmanned probes to lead the way. The images they transmit to us from distant planets gives us a taste of the wonders we will encounter. There is a problem though. The network that connects us to those technological eyes is in trouble.

The Deep Space Network, or DSN, is an interconnected array of three radio telescope facilities spread across the globe. These facilities, located in California, Spain and Australia, are managed and operated for NASA by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. At approximately 120 degrees apart in longitude, their locations were chosen so that any space probe at a distance greater than 30,000 kilometers (about 18,640 miles) from Earth can be in radio contact with at least one of them.

DSN is the primary way NASA contacts spacecraft far from Earth, including such technical marvels as the James Webb Space Telescopethe Mars 2020 Perseverance rover and even ultra-distant probe Voyager 1 – the man-made object that is currently furthest away of the Earth. Indeed, without the DSN, NASA’s robotic exploration of deep space simply would not be possible.

The problem with the DSN is multiple. Although it has performed brilliantly since it began operations in the 1960s and has undergone periodic upgrades, it is overloaded and in critical need of infrastructure improvements.

It is currently 40 missions which depend on the DSN antennas to operate, with the expectation that another 40 missions will be launched in the future. Given that some of the existing missions will continue to be operational, the demands on the network will continue to grow.

The severity of the situation became abundantly clear during the recent NASA Artemis I mission to the moon. Although this mission was unmanned, the Artemis program will eventually lift astronauts into space in a spacecraft called Orion, with plans to land people on the moon as soon as 2025. The DSN will be the method by which mission controllers on Earth will communicate with astronauts and monitor the trajectory of the craft.

During the Artemis I mission, the DSN was used track the unmanned Orion capsule. The capsule was accompanied by 10 small secondary “CubeSats,” which are tiny satellites that range in size from about the size of a toaster to the size of a briefcase. Basically, they are inexpensive devices that can perform specific tasks.

However, each of these CubeSats required its own DSN link for Earth-bound technical staff to monitor its performance, which imposed a heavy burden on the capabilities of the communications network. Indeed, during the 25-day Artemis I mission, other science-critical missions were neglected.

To give a sense of the impact, the Orion spacecraft received 903 hours of DSN time, while the CubeSats consumed an additional 871 hours of DSN time.

During the Artemis flight, the use of DSN meant that important scientific missions were denied 1,585 hours of the use of the network, including 185 hours that the James Webb Space Telescope could not communicate with Earth. In addition, while the Orion spacecraft was in flight, NASA delayed 509 hours of major DSN maintenance.

This is not to say that Artemis’s mission is unimportant. On the contrary, if humanity ventures into deep space again, it will be important to be able to maintain radio contact with those intrepid explorers. And the need for more ability to interact with unmanned deep space probes is growing, both because of more missions and because of the simple fact that modern cameras take sharper images and require faster connectivity to transmit the images.

Basically, it’s no different than how your high definition TV streaming requires more bandwidth than an older standard definition. As was reported in a recent inspector general’s reportthe current situation is untenable and will only get worse.

So, what to do? Most importantly, we should listen to the communication professionals running the DSN and give them the necessary support to improve their skills. This may include building additional antennas at the three DSN sites, improving the electronics on current antennas and various additional upgrades.

The operational costs of upgrading a DSN are…

Leave a Reply