Deep Space Network’s 50th Anniversary

Categories: Also in News Missions


Canberra Deep Space Communications Complex

On December 24, 1963 a memo from Dr. William H. Pickering, the then Director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory was sent to the senior staff. This memo established the Deep Space Network (DSN) combining the responsibilities of the Deep Space Instrumentation Facility, interstation communications, and multi-mission components of the Space Flight Operations Facility.

The concept of the DSN came from Dr. Eberhardt Rechtin, the then Tracking and Data Acquisition Director. He envisioned a worldwide network of three tracking sites spaced about 120 degrees apart on Earth. As the Earth rotates, the antennas at the sites would be able to maintain continuous contact with spacecraft in deep space.

The first 26 meter (85 foot) antenna was constructed in 1958 shortly after Explorer I’s launch and the US commitment to the space race. This more powerful antenna was needed to provide tracking services to the upcoming lunar mission, Pioneer. A remote location within a small, established community on government property is what was desired. The bowl-shaped area surrounded by low hills near the Goldstone Dry Lake on the military reservation at Fort Irwin, CA fit the bill. Locations in valleys were desired because they provided natural shielding from nearby Radio Frequency (RF) signals.

Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex

Woomera, Australia was the site of the second 26 meter antenna, built in 1960. This location was chosen because this site was about 110 degrees west of Goldstone, it had previous experience with satellites and tracking, and the spoken language was English. Australia had also partnered with the US during the International Geophysical Year (IGY) in 1957-1958 regarding optical tracking. Today’s Australian DSN facility is located outside of Canberra in a town called Tidbinbilla.

The third 26 meter antenna was built in 1961 just outside of Johannesburg, South Africa. The location was favored because the station had previous experience with optical tracking and the Minitrack system (early tracking system), and its longitude was ideal for receiving signals within one hour after launches from Florida.

NASA was concerned about the political environment in South Africa during the 1960’s and looked elsewhere (on the same longitude) to build a station. A location was chosen outside Madrid, Spain in Robledo de Chevala; the 26 meter antenna was built in 1965. Operations in Johannesburg ceased in 1974.

As the number of missions grew, so did their level of sophistication. Mission requirements included communication and tracking at higher bandwidths. In addition, spacecraft were outlasting their original mission design life, which meant more science data, more images, and more videos. Some of the 26 meter antennas were upgraded to 34 meter (111 foot) antennas, which included S- and X- band feeds; some of them were retired or moved to other locations. Computers were upgraded to capture the overwhelming amount of science data coming from the spacecraft.

Madrid Deep Space Communications Complex

A 64 meter (210 foot) antenna was constructed at each of the stations in the late 1960’s/early 1970’s to receive signals from missions heading to the Jovian planets. The 64 meter antennas were upgraded again in the mid 1980’s to 70 meter (230 foot) antennas to capture signals from spacecraft heading to the furthest points of our solar system. These 70 meter antennas are some of the largest precision steerable antennas in the world.

The future of the DSN includes replacing the 70 meter antennas with arrays of more modern and efficient 34 meter (111 foot) Beam Waveguide (BWG) antennas. Arraying four of these antennas equals the sensitivity of one 70 meter. The 34 meter antennas are also more reliable and easier to maintain, since the receiving equipment is not on the moving dish, but underground in the antenna basement. Currently, construction is underway in Canberra, Australia on the first of two of the new 34 meter BWG antennas.

Over the last 50 years, the Deep Space Network has provided superior communication and tracking services to missions that have captured images from all the planets in our solar system, science information from potential habitable planets, and cosmic phenomenon from light years away. Data rates for these tracking and communication services have advanced from about 8.33 bits per second to over 1 megabit per second. The DSN continues to track Voyager 1, the first man-made object to leave our solar system. Signals from this spacecraft take approximately 17 hours to reach the Earth, and continue to get longer and longer as it moves in interstellar space.

Map of Deep Space Network Sites. Credit: NASA

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