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NASA's Deep Space Network: 40 Years of Service

"Station 14 -- this is Stardust. We have a command load to send to the spacecraft. Can we verify your command system?"

For the past 40 years, commands have been uplinked to spacecraft as they've traveled the solar system and had their precious science data retrieved through the powerful transmitters, sensitive receivers and immense antennas of NASA's Deep Space Network.

The 70-meter-diameter (230-foot) antenna is the largest, and therefore most sensitive, antenna in the network, and is capabile of tracking a spacecraft travelling more than 16 billion kilometers (10 billion miles) from Earth.
The 70-meter-diameter (230-foot) antenna is the largest, and therefore most sensitive, antenna in the network, and is capabile of tracking a spacecraft travelling more than 16 billion kilometers (10 billion miles) from Earth.

On December 24, 1963, a memo from the late Dr. William Pickering, director of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the time, announced the establishment of the Deep Space Network. Five years earlier, antennas had been built at the network's Goldstone site in California's Mojave Desert, and overseas sites were being developed in Woomera, Australia, and in Johannesburg, South Africa, but it was Pickering's action that combined the disparate elements to create the first integrated global communications capability to deep space.

During the ensuing 40 years, the communications network evolved. The original antennas were 26 meters (85 feet) in diameter but were soon joined by much larger 64-meter (210-feet) antennas. As the sophistication of spacecraft instrumentation increased, the network grew to meet the new demands. Between 1978 and 1980, the 26-meter antennas were upgraded and enlarged to 34-meter (111-feet) antennas. The same happened in the late 1980s to the 64-meter antennas, which became 70-meter (230-feet) antennas. New 34-meter high efficiency antennas were designed; and most recently a unique communications system was developed in the widely used 34-meter beam waveguide antennas.

"The Deep Space Network has evolved over the last 40 years from a network with very simple capabilities -- such as being able to support 8 bits per second telemetry and one spacecraft at a time -- to one that regularly supports multi-megabit telemetry from more than three dozen spacecraft in any given year. Those missions range from near-Earth spacecraft to missions nearing the edge of the solar system," said Joe Wackley, manager of the Deep Space Network operations program office.

Goldstone remains the network's U.S. location, but overseas sites have been relocated to Canberra, Australia and Madrid, Spain. The worldwide positions allow round-the-clock communications with spacecraft as Earth rotates.

"Because of the foresight and abilities of its managers and engineers, who are justifiably proud, the Deep Space Network has evolved into the most sensitive and reliable deep space receiving instrument ever built," Wackley said. "This has enabled and contributed to the successful accomplishment of the scientific exploration of the solar system."

In addition to the U.S. space missions, the network has supported multiple international missions. NASA missions among those the network has helped to success include the Mariners, Viking, Voyager, Galileo, the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory and Mars Pathfinder. The network has an amazing history that will continue to be written for the next 40 years and beyond.

Related Links:

Deep Space Network Homepage

Last Updated: 7 February 2011

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Last Updated: 7 Feb 2011