Deep space network

This article is about the deep space communication network of JPL and NASA. For the network of low cost interplanetary trajectories, see Interplanetary Transport Network.
Deep Space Network
Organization Interplanetary Network Directorate
Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex near Barstow, California, United States
Robledo de Chavela near Madrid, Spain
Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex Tidbinbilla, near Canberra, Australia

The Deep Space Network, or DSN, is a world-wide network of large antennas and communication facilities that supports interplanetary spacecraft missions. It also performs radio and radar astronomy observations for the exploration of the solar system and the universe, and supports selected Earth-orbiting missions. DSN is part of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Other similar networks include ESTRACK of the European Space Agency, the Soviet Deep Space Network, the Indian Deep Space Network, and the Chinese Deep Space Network.

Deep space

Tracking vehicles in deep space is quite different from tracking missions in low Earth orbit (LEO). Deep space missions are visible for long periods of time from a large portion of the Earth's surface, and so require few stations (the DSN has only three main sites). These few stations, however, require huge antennas, ultra-sensitive receivers, and powerful transmitters in order to transmit and receive over the vast distances involved.

Deep space is defined in two different ways. The first is when a mission gets sufficiently far from Earth that it is always in view of one of the tracking stations. This distance, about 16,000 km or 10,000 miles, was the definition used during Apollo and early days of the DSN.[1] The more modern definition is from the International Telecommunications Union, which sets aside various frequency bands for deep space and near Earth use. According to this definition, deep space starts at a distance of 2,000,000 km from the Earth's surface.[2] In particular, this means that missions to the Moon, and the Earth–Sun Lagrangian points L1 and L2, are considered near space and cannot use the deep space frequencies.


Further information: History of the Deep Space Network

The forerunner of the DSN was established in January 1958, when JPL, then under contract to the U.S. Army, deployed portable radio tracking stations in Nigeria, Singapore, and California to receive telemetry and plot the orbit of the Army-launched Explorer 1, the first successful U.S. satellite.[3] NASA was officially established on October 1, 1958, to consolidate the separately developing space-exploration programs of the US Army, US Navy, and US Air Force into one civilian organization.[4]

On December 3, 1958, JPL was transferred from the US Army to NASA and given responsibility for the design and execution of lunar and planetary exploration programs using remotely-controlled spacecraft. Shortly after the transfer NASA established the concept of the Deep Space Network as a separately managed and operated communications system that would accommodate all deep space missions, thereby avoiding the need for each flight project to acquire and operate its own specialized space communications network. The DSN was given responsibility for its own research, development, and operation in support of all of its users. Under this concept, it has become a world leader in the development of low-noise receivers; large parabolic-dish antennas; tracking, telemetry, and command systems; digital signal processing; and deep space navigation.

The largest antennas of the DSN are often called on during spacecraft emergencies. Almost all spacecraft are designed so normal operation can be conducted on the smaller (and more economical) antennas of the DSN, but during an emergency the use of the largest antennas is crucial. This is because a troubled spacecraft may be forced to use less than its normal transmitter power, attitude control problems may preclude the use of high-gain antennas, and recovering every bit of telemetry is critical to assessing the health of the spacecraft and planning the recovery. The most famous example is the Apollo 13 mission, where limited battery power and inability to use the spacecraft's high gain antennas reduced signal levels below the capability of the Manned Space Flight Network, and the use of the biggest DSN antennas (and the Australian Parkes Observatory radio telescope) was critical to saving the lives of the astronauts. While Apollo was also a US mission, DSN provides this emergency service to other space agencies as well, in a spirit of inter-agency and international cooperation. For example, the recovery of the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) mission of the European Space Agency (ESA) would not have been possible without the use of the largest DSN facilities.

DSN and the Apollo program

Although normally tasked with tracking unmanned spacecraft, the Deep Space Network (DSN) also contributed to the communication and tracking of Apollo missions to the Moon, although primary responsibility was held by the Manned Space Flight Network. The DSN designed the MSFN stations for lunar communication and provided a second antenna at each MSFN site (the MSFN sites were near the DSN sites for just this reason). Two antennas at each site were needed both for redundancy and because the beam widths of the large antennas needed were too small to encompass both the lunar orbiter and the lander at the same time. DSN also supplied some larger antennas as needed, in particular for television broadcasts from the Moon, and emergency communications such as Apollo 13.[5]

From a NASA report describing how the DSN and MSFN cooperated for Apollo:[6]

Another critical step in the evolution of the Apollo Network came in 1965 with the advent of the DSN Wing concept. Originally, the participation of DSN 26-m antennas during an Apollo Mission was to be limited to a backup role. This was one reason why the MSFN 26-m sites were collocated with the DSN sites at Goldstone, Madrid, and Canberra. However, the presence of two, well-separated spacecraft during lunar operations stimulated the rethinking of the tracking and communication problem. One thought was to add a dual S-band RF system to each of the three 26-m MSFN antennas, leaving the nearby DSN 26-m antennas still in a backup role. Calculations showed, though, that a 26-m antenna pattern centered on the landed Lunar Module would suffer a 9-to-12 db loss at the lunar horizon, making tracking and data acquisition of the orbiting Command Service Module difficult, perhaps impossible. It made sense to use both the MSFN and DSN antennas simultaneously during the all-important lunar operations. JPL was naturally reluctant to compromise the objectives of its many unmanned spacecraft by turning three of its DSN stations over to the MSFN for long periods. How could the goals of both Apollo and deep space exploration be achieved without building a third 26-m antenna at each of the three sites or undercutting planetary science missions?
The solution came in early 1965 at a meeting at NASA Headquarters, when Eberhardt Rechtin suggested what is now known as the "wing concept". The wing approach involves constructing a new section or "wing" to the main building at each of the three involved DSN sites. The wing would include a MSFN control room and the necessary interface equipment to accomplish the following:
  1. Permit tracking and two-way data transfer with either spacecraft during lunar operations.
  2. Permit tracking and two-way data transfer with the combined spacecraft during the flight to the Moon.
  3. Provide backup for the collocated MSFN site passive track (spacecraft to ground RF links) of the Apollo spacecraft during trans-lunar and trans-earth phases.

With this arrangement, the DSN station could be quickly switched from a deep-space mission to Apollo and back again. GSFC personnel would operate the MSFN equipment completely independently of DSN personnel. Deep space missions would not be compromised nearly as much as if the entire station's equipment and personnel were turned over to Apollo for several weeks.

The details of this cooperation and operation are available in a two-volume technical report from JPL.[7][8]

General information

DSN currently consists of three deep-space communications facilities placed approximately 120 degrees apart around the Earth.[9][10] They are: