Celebrating Fifty Years Of Deep Space Network
December 19, 2013

December 24 Marks 50th Anniversary Of NASA’s Deep Space Network

[ Watch the Video: NASA's Deep Space Network Turns 50 On December 24 ]

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN), a global radio telescope array used to communicate with spacecraft throughout the solar system, will celebrate its 50th anniversary on Tuesday, December 24.

According to the US space agency, the DSN is the largest and most powerful communications system of its kind, as well as the only truly global spacecraft communications network. It has three facilities (one in Goldstone, California; one near Madrid, Spain; and one in Canberra, Australia) located roughly 120 degrees apart in order to keep astronomers and scientists on the ground in constant communications with astronauts and probes in space.

Each of those centers is equipped with multiple parabolic dish antennas, including one that is 230 feet (70 meters) across. While other countries and international space agencies maintain deep-space communication centers, NASA claims that DSN is the only one possessing the ability to remain in contact with spacecraft at all times.

The network started life as the Deep Space Instrumentation Facility, which consisted of only a handful of small antennas and was operated by the US Army during the 1950s. Oversight of the facility was eventually handed over to NASA, and on December 24, 1963, it started expanding and officially became the Deep Space Network.

Over its lifespan, the DSN has been integral to many historic moments in the US space program. In 1969, it showed us the first moonwalk and transmitted Neal Armstrong’s famous words, “That's one small step for man. One giant leap for mankind.” The network also provided the first-ever images of Mars, and helped keep engineers on the ground in constant contact with the Apollo 13 crew as they struggled to make it home.

“Today, the DSN supports a fleet of more than 30 U.S. and international robotic space missions,” DSN Project Manager Al Bhanji of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California, which manages the network, said in a statement Wednesday. “Without the DSN, we would never have been able to undertake voyages to Mercury and Venus, visit asteroids and comets, we'd never have seen the stunning images of robots on Mars, or close-up views of the majestic rings of Saturn.”

“In addition to allowing missions to upload and download data to and from dozens of spacecraft, the network helps navigators pinpoint spots for landings and conduct burns that place spacecraft into orbit around other planets, or fine-tune their trajectory,” the space agency added. “Currently, the list of spacecraft supported by the DSN includes NASA's Curiosity rover on Mars, the Spitzer Space Telescope, the Saturn explorer Cassini and the two Voyager spacecraft, which are more than 9.6 billion miles (15.5 billion kilometers) away from Earth.”

According to NASA, the DSN also supports spacecraft from the European Space Agency (ESA), the Japanese Space Agency and the Indian Space Agency. The network is also capable of performing scientific investigations, such as using the 230-foot antenna at the California facility to determine the position and velocity of near-Earth asteroids. This allows scientists to track the potentially damaging objects.

Furthermore, by combining signals from the DSN data with other radio telescopes, researchers are able to create a “synthetic telescope” than can be used to look into active galaxy cores located halfway across the universe. It can also be used to examine the interior of planets within our own galaxy, allowing scientists to analyze solar wind or study gravitational physics on other worlds.

“The future of the Deep Space Network looks bright, with optical communications on the horizon to augment the traditional RF-technology (radio waves moving at the speed of light),” NASA said. Once optical communications are operational, the increased bandwidth it provides will drastically increase the data return from scientific missions.

“In 2063, when we celebrate the Deep Space Network's 100th anniversary, we can imagine that we might be recalling the amazing days when our antennas streamed high-res video as the first humans stepped onto the surface of Mars,” Bhanji added. “Or that day when we discovered a new living ‘Earth’ orbiting a distant star.”

Find out more about the Deep Space Network here.