Mon. Apr 15th, 2024

Call for help from Deep Space NASA Network

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An antenna of the Deep Space Network located in Canberra, Australia.

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The network of giant antennas that ensure communications between Earth and deep space is aging and struggling to keep up with growing demand. Experts are worried about the future of the network inaugurated 60 years ago.

The Artemis program is one of NASA's most ambitious space projects of the next decade. It aims to send astronauts back to the Moon, including the first woman to go there.

Although the program arouses enthusiasm for many, it is a source of concern for Suzanne Dodd, director of the Interplanetary Network at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and head of the Deep Space Network (the communications network with the Planet). deep space).

We are at maximum capacity. We manage around forty missions and others continue to be added without us having enough new antennas. That worries me.

A quote from Suzanne Dodd, head of the Deep Space Network

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Suzanne Dodd is Director of the Interplanetary Network at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, responsible for the Deep Space Network.

Resources are arriving too slowly compared to the demands of Artemis' schedule, she said.

The Deep Space Network consists of 13 giant radio antennas across three locations: Goldstone, USA; Madrid, Spain; and Canberra, Australia. This network sends and receives images, scientific data and information to operate the fleet of devices and vessels scattered throughout the solar system, whether the James Webb telescope, the rovers on Mars or the Parker solar probe. It is also thanks to this network that it is possible to maintain the ultimate long-distance call: between Earth and the Voyager I probe, which continues its journey into interstellar space.

The network, whose first antenna preceded the creation of NASA, has been an essential pillar of all major space missions. But with the proliferation of projects and high-precision instruments, the amount of data exchanged with space has exploded. For example, the James Webb Telescope transmits data at a rate 50 times higher than its predecessor, Hubble.

This summer, NASA's Office of Inspector General also concluded that the network is currently operating at maximum capacity and is overloaded. Data transmission demand exceeds network capacity by 40% at times. Taken together, the agency's missions have been denied in five years at least 8,500 hours and up to 15,000 hours (or 625 days) of air time.

Missions get the minimum of what they need. They don't have what they want. We're not putting the ships at risk, we can operate them, but we're losing a lot of science, and that's the compromise we have to make right now.

A quote from Suzanne Dodd, head of Deep Space Network

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The Deep Space Network facility in Canberra, Australia.

According to the agency's internal studies, demand is expected to increase significantly in the coming decade, with a 10-fold increase by the early 2030s.

The inspector general's audit states that demand has exceeded network capacity for more than 30 years. This is also the message that Suzanne Dodd has been hammering home for years.

The Deep Space Network is a communications infrastructure. It's not sexy, she agrees. They are not astronauts, they are not a space telescope. It's easily forgotten, as long as it works.

However, its infrastructure is aging. Maintaining them requires long downtime and increasingly more money, the audit notes. It's practically juggling, to hear Ms. Dodd: We manage to keep all the balls in the air, but it gets harder every year. We're holding on so far, but if we keep up the pace for another 5 or 10 years, it might not last.

In November 2022, Suzanne Dodd saw his fears confirmed during the first flight of the new lunar program, Artemis I.

The 25-day mission required 903 hours of airtime. To this were added 871 hours for tracking eight cube sats, minisatellites as big as shoeboxes, launched as a secondary load. To achieve this, it was necessary to put all other missions on hold as well as network maintenance.

This is not sustainable, says Ms. Dodd. We had to track all these cube satsin addition to the ship. We don't have the means to do this kind of thing!

With its manned flights, Artemis will require considerable network resources to ensure the astronaut safety.

Artemis is the priority. Other projects will have to give way during its operation. Does this mean we will lose data from other missions? Probably. Could this harm them? Maybe, maybe not. But if two critical events happen at the same time, the network won't be able to handle that.

A quote from Suzanne Dodd, head of the Deep Space Network

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A Deep Space Network antenna located in the Mojave Desert, California.

However, work is underway to increase the capacity of the network.

The Deep Space Network Aperture Enhancement program plans to add six antennas, some of which are at higher frequencies, which will increase data throughput. Everything should be functional in 2029, but five years late and a cost overrun of 70%.

Also, the Psyche probe, launched last month towards the asteroid belt, will make it possible to test laser telecommunications. By encoding information on high-frequency optical waves instead of radio waves, we will be able to multiply the throughput by 10, or even by 100. But the technology is only in its infancy, and it will not be enough to fill immediate needs, warns Suzanne Dodd.

I think we managed to get NASA's attention, and I feel that now, everyone understands the situation, but no one has a solution that fits into the agency's budgetary boxes, she observes. NASA's budget is very, very tight.

So what to do?

As things stand, the Deep Space Network will not be able to support all the upcoming missions alone, Ms. Dodd reiterates. We need international collaborations. Private companies should also invest in deep space communication.

None of these incredible images – whether it's James Webb's deep space images or the first step on the Moon, none of that – would come to us without the Deep Space Network, argues Suzanna Dodd. So, it is essential to ensure that it remains healthy so that it matches our future ambitions.

A report by Binh An Vu Van on this subject will be presented on the show Découverte , broadcast on Sundays at 6 p.m. 30 on ICI Télé and at 22 h on ICI Explora, and Saturday at 7 h 30 on ICI RDI.

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