Signal to Voyager-2 confirms upgrade of NASA’s Deep Space Network

After months of downtime in order to install a major and very badly needed upgrade to NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN) (the worldwide array of radio dishes used to communicate with planetary probes throughout the solar system) a test command to Voyager-2 beyond the orbit of Pluto was sent, received, and executed successfully this week, proving the upgrade is working.

The call to Voyager 2 was a test of new hardware recently installed on Deep Space Station 43, the only dish in the world that can send commands to Voyager 2. Located in Canberra, Australia, it is part of NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN), a collection of radio antennas around the world used primarily to communicate with spacecraft operating beyond the Moon. Since the dish went offline, mission operators have been able to receive health updates and science data from Voyager 2, but they haven’t been able to send commands to the far-flung probe, which has traveled billions of miles from Earth since its 1977 launch.

Among the upgrades to DSS43, as the dish is known, are two new radio transmitters. One of them, which is used to talk with Voyager 2, hasn’t been replaced in over 47 years. Engineers have also upgraded heating and cooling equipment, power supply equipment, and other electronics needed to run the new transmitters.

The successful call to Voyager 2 is just one indication that the dish will be back online in February 2021.

The upgrade has been overdue for years, and is essential to provide sufficient communications capability for the future interplanetary mission presently planned.

Upgrades to Deep Space Network to block commands to Voyager 2

A scheduled eleven month upgrade to one of the three Deep Space Network antennas used to communicate with planetary missions will prevent scientists from sending commands to Voyager 2 during that time period.

Data will still be downloaded, but if anything should go wrong, such as happened in January, it will be impossible to do anything about it. In January engineers were able to troubleshoot the problem and upload corrections. During these upgrades a fix will have to wait. To reduce the chance of serious issue, engineers will put Voyager 2 into a more dormant state during this time period.

The repairs are essential however, even if it means we lose Voyager 2. This network must work for all the other Moon and Mars missions planned for the next few decades, and an upgrade has been desperately needed for years.

NASA breaks ground on new communications antenna

NASA has broken ground on the construction of the first new communications antenna since 2003 at its Goldstone, Californa, site, one of three the agency maintains worldwide for communicating with its planetary probes.

There has been a desperate need to both expand and upgrade this network, dubbed the Deep Space Network, for years, a need that will grow even more desperate next year with the addition of two more rovers on Mars.

Some debate at NASA over Opportunity

This story yesterday had the following interesting paragraph:

Members of Opportunity’s engineering team recommended a different plan, the person close to the mission says. Their idea was to actively try to communicate with Opportunity until the end of January 2019 — the end of the seasonal cleaning period. After that, they suggested passive listening until the end of 2019. But these recommendations were ignored by management in order to save money, this person says, meaning the agency could be risking abandoning a still-functioning rover. The Opportunity team reportedly didn’t receive formal notice of the plan until “minutes before JPL published its press release,” according to The Atlantic.

It appears that some on the science team do not feel that the present plan to listen closely for only 45 days, through mid-October, is sufficient, as it will likely require a dust devil to clear Opportunity’s solar panels, and dust devil season will not begin until November.

However, it is very likely wrong to blame the resistance by NASA management to this plan solely to a desire to save money. There are other considerations, such as tying up the Deep Space Network for this one rover when, as I noted yesterday, the October to January time period will be a very very very busy time for that network, with many important new planetary probe events. Seven different spacecraft will either be landing or doing fly-bys on four different solar system targets during that time. Tying the network up to listen for Opportunity will likely not work.

It seems to me that Opportunity should be recovered, if possible, but it also must receive a lower priority during this time period. After New Horizons’ January 1st fly-by of Ultima Thule it might be possible to devote more time then to listening, but I can see the logic, at least in this context, for reducing the listening time from October to January.

Hat tip Kirk Hilliard.

Contact re-established with dead solar satellite

Good news! After almost two years since contact was lost, NASA has re-established communications with Stereo-B, one of two solar research satellites designed to study the hemisphere of the Sun that does not face the Earth.

NASA re-established contact with a wayward sun-watching science satellite Sunday nearly two years after the spacecraft suddenly dropped off line during a test, the agency said in a statement Monday. NASA’s Deep Space Network, or DSN, “established a lock on the STEREO-B (spacecraft’s) downlink carrier at 6:27 p.m. EDT,” NASA said in a statement. “The downlink signal was monitored by the Mission Operations team over several hours to characterize the attitude of the spacecraft and then transmitter high voltage was powered down to save battery power. “The STEREO Missions Operations team plans further recovery processes to assess observatory health, re-establish attitude control and evaluate all subsystems and instruments.”

This is a big deal. Not only is it a testament to the spacecraft’s good design, it demonstrates the skill of the engineers at NASA who have regained contact.

Privately built smallsat designed deep space communications

The competition heats up: A partnership between two British space companies, a smallsat manufacturer and a space antenna operator, will team up to build and test a new smallsat communications satellite in lunar orbit.

The SSTL-GES Lunar Pathfinder team are already working on the initial baseline design, with technical assistance from the European Space Agency (ESA). SSTL are designing a series of lunar communication satellites and will be building on their heritage of small satellite platforms in Low Earth orbit and Medium Earth orbit to go beyond Earth’s orbit for the first time. GES are upgrading one of the famous antennas at their Goonhilly site in Cornwall, UK, into a deep space ground asset, which will be the first element in a commercial deep space network. In addition, GES will provide a dedicated mission operations centre situated in Cornwall.

What is interesting about this is that this is a private effort to develop a modern commercial deep space communications network for future planetary missions. It would be competitive with NASA’s Deep Space Network, which presently is the only game in town and is generally made up of upgraded 1960s based technology. This new network would also eventually include a dedicated network of smallsats scattered through the solar system to act as communications relays. This is something that NASA does not provide, depending instead on the communications instruments of the planetary missions themselves.

NASA and JPL have now stated that the government shutdown will not interfere with their promised support for India’s Mars Orbiter Mission.

NASA and JPL have now stated that the government shutdown will not interfere with their promised support for India’s Mars Orbiter Mission.

Earlier reports had suggested that NASA’s Deep Space Network, used to communicate with planetary probes, would not be available because of the shutdown, and the mission would have to be delayed because of this.

Posted from Columbia, Maryland.

Because India depends on the American Deep Space communications network — mostly unavailable due to the government shutdown — the launch of its first Mars probe, set for October 28, might have to be delayed for two years.

Because India depends on the American Deep Space communications network — mostly unavailable due to the government shutdown — the launch of its first Mars probe, set for October 28, might have to be delayed for two years.

This is unfortunate news indeed. However, if I was India (as well as other countries) I would consider this a call to develop their own deep space network.

Impressive radar images of near-Earth asteroid 2007 PA8 were taken during its recent fly-by of Earth.

Impressive radar images of near-Earth asteroid 2007 PA8 were taken during its recent fly-by of Earth.

The images … reveal possible craters, boulders, an irregular, asymmetric shape, and very slow rotation. The asteroid measures approximately one mile wide (about 1.6 kilometers).

The asteroid poses no threat to Earth. The resolution of the images, however, is astonishing, especially considering it was done by radar.