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According to this article in the journal Science, planetary scientists are increasingly worried about the future of the Deep Space Network (DSN), operated by JPL and that they use to communicate with their unmanned planetary probes.
For most of its life, the network, run by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, has been metronomic in its reliability. Its three sites, spaced 120° apart around the globe, all have a 70-meter dish built in the 1960s or ’70s, and several newer, 34-meter dishes, which can be arrayed together to match the larger dishes’ downlink performance. The network allows continuous contact with spacecraft anywhere in the solar system—or beyond it, as in the case of Voyager 1, which officially entered interstellar space in 2013. Currently, 35 missions rely on the DSN.
Ironically, the glitches this past December and January largely stemmed from problems with the network’s newest 34-meter antenna, DSS-35, in Canberra, which began operating in 2014, NASA says. Rain and dust compromised an instrument that helps aim it, several other pointing components overheated, and contaminants leaked into a cryogenic refrigerator used to cool an amplifier. NASA says these problems have mostly been fixed, and the Canberra station’s reliability will increase when its next 34-meter antenna, DSS-36, begins operating on 1 October.
Staffing issues have also compounded the hardware problems. In January, the Magnetospheric Multiscale mission, which measures the boundary between Earth’s magnetic field and the solar wind, was, like Cassini, having trouble connecting to DSS-35. Communications could have shifted to another Canberra antenna. But on 22 January, a snowstorm shut down the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. No one was there to reconfigure the spacecraft, and so the retrieval of a day’s worth of data was delayed.
While there has been a tendency to take the DSN for granted, much of this article seems to me to be a lobbying ploy for more money, budget increases that really aren’t needed that desperately. Almost all the problems listed in the article as well as in the quote above are not really from budgeting problems. In the first case above the failure came from a new antenna, showing that funds had been provided to upgrade the network’s equipment. The second case above was simply a problem caused by an unusual snowstorm.
Moreover, the article noted how Europe has finally built its own network to provide communications for its own planetary probes as well as redundancy to the American network. In addition, the U.S. is negotiating partnerships with several other countries to further supplement its DSN.
In other words, there really isn’t a problem here. The article is informative about this often ignored but essential component of planetary research, but when you read it ignore the pleas for more cash.