The giant network of antennas that ensure communications between Earth and deep space is aging and struggling to keep up with increasing demand. Experts are concerned about the future of the network that was opened 60 years ago.
The Artemis program is one of the space projects of NASA The most ambitious of the next decade. It aims to return astronauts to the moon, including the first woman to go there.
Although the program excites many, it is a source of concern for Susan Dodd, the program directorInterplanetary network in Jet Propulsion Laboratory And responsible for Deep Space Network (Deep Space Communications Network).
We are at our maximum capacity. We operate about forty missions and more missions continue to be added without enough new antennas. What worries me.
Susan Dodd is director of the Interplanetary Network at JPL, responsible for the Deep Space Network.
Resources are arriving very slowly compared to the requirements of Artemis’ scheduleSays.
the Deep Space Network It consists of 13 giant radio antennas spread across three locations: Goldstone, USA; Madrid Spain; and Canberra, Australia. This network sends and receives images, data, and scientific information to operate the fleet of devices and ships spread throughout the solar system, whether it is the James Webb Telescope, the rovers on Mars, or the Parker Solar Probe. Also thanks to this network, it is possible to maintain the final long-distance connection: between Earth and the Voyager I probe, which continues its journey into interstellar space.
The network, the first antenna of which was created NASAIt has been a mainstay of all major space missions. But with the proliferation of high-resolution projects and tools, the amount of data exchanged with space has increased. For example, the James Webb Telescope transmits data at a rate 50 times higher than its predecessor, Hubble.
This summer, the Office of Inspector General NASA He also concluded that
The network is currently operating at maximum capacity He is burdened. Data transfer demand sometimes exceeds network capacity by 40%. Combined, the agency’s missions were deprived of at least 8,500 hours and up to 15,000 hours (or 625 days) of airtime over five years.
Missions get the bare 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 now.
Deep Space Network facilities in Canberra, Australia.
According to the agency’s internal studies, the demand
It is expected to increase significantly in the next decade, with a 10-fold increase by the early 2030s.
The Inspector General’s audit determines that
Demand has exceeded network capacity for more than 30 years. This is also the message Susan Dodd has been asking herself for years.
the Deep Space NetworkIt is a communications infrastructure. It’s not sexy, she agrees. They’re not astronauts, and they’re not a space telescope. It’s easy to forget, as long as it works.
However, its infrastructure is aging. Maintaining them requires longer downtime and increasingly more money, the audit indicates. It is practical for Mrs. Dodd to hear:
We manage to keep all the balls in the air, but it gets more difficult every year. We are holding up so far, but if we keep up the pace for another 5 or 10 years, it may not last.
In November 2022, Susan Dodd’s fears were confirmed during the maiden flight of the new lunar program Artemis I.
The mission took 25 days and required 903 hours of broadcast. To this was added 871 hours to monitor eight sats cubeSmall satellites, the size of shoeboxes, are launched as a secondary payload. To achieve this, it was necessary to suspend all other tasks in addition to network maintenance.
This is not sustainablesays Ms. Dodd.
We had to follow up on all these things sats cube In addition to the ship. We can’t afford to do this kind of thing!
Through its crewed flights, Artemis will require significant network resources to ensure the safety of astronauts.
Artemis is the priority. Other projects will have to make room as they work. Does this mean we will lose data from other missions? probably. Could this harm them? Maybe or maybe not. But if two critical events occur at the same time, the network will not be able to handle it.
Deep Space Network antenna located in the Mojave Desert, California.
Image: NASA/Josh Krohn
Small steps forward
However, work is underway to increase the network capacity.
the program Enhanced deep space network slot The company plans to add six antennas, some at higher frequencies, which will increase data throughput. Everything should be up and running in 2029, but is five years late and has a 70% cost overrun.
The Psyche probe, launched last month toward the asteroid belt, will also make it possible to test laser communications. By encoding information on high-frequency light waves instead of radio waves, we could multiply throughput by 10, or even 100. But this technology is still in its infancy, and will not be sufficient to meet immediate needs. Susan Dodd warns.
I think we succeeded in attracting attention NASAI have the impression that everyone now understands the situation, but no one has a solution that fits the agency’s budget fundsYou notice.
The budget NASA Very, very tight.
So what to do?
In the current situation, Deep Space Network It will not be able to support all future missions alone, Ms. Dodd stresses. We need international cooperation. It will also be necessary for private companies to invest in deep space communication.
None of these amazing images – whether they are James Webb’s images in deep space or the first step on the moon – would have reached us without… Deep Space Network“So, it is essential to ensure that it remains intact so that it can meet our future ambitions,” says Susanna Dodd.
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