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.

Keeping the Deep Space Network working

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.