An Inside Look at NASA's Deep Space Network

This year marks 50 years of NASA/JPL’s global collection of massive antenna arrays that control unmanned space probes within Earth's orbit and beyond.

Apr 15 2014, 2:10pm
Goldstone's 70-meter antenna under a full moon. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Eccentric chemical engineer and Jet Propulsion Lab co-founder Marvel "John" Whiteside Parsons was born a century ago this year, while JPL itself first got its name 70 years ago. This year also marks the 45th anniversary of the Moon landing which, it goes without saying, remains one of humankind's most significant accomplishments yet. But these other touchstones aside, this month NASA/JPL highlighted a much less publicized landmark in its history.

This year is the 50th birthday of NASA/JPL’s Deep Space Network, the government’s global collection of massive antenna arrays that control unmanned space probes within Earth's orbit and beyond. If you've wondered how NASA stays in contact with the Voyager spacecraft across billions of miles of space, the DSN is to thank.

Because the DSN doesn't get as much attention as it probably should, NASA/JPL recently hosted a semi-public "NASA Social," with visits to its Pasadena facilities as well as California's own Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex (GDSCC) in the Mojave Desert. The goal was to help spread the word about the DSN through social media via 50 lucky people with Twitter accounts, each selected at random from a pool of 500 others who signed up for the event on NASA/JPL's website. They were joined by a few representatives from the actual media, too, including yours truly.

NASA/JPL Mission Control Center. Image: Tanja M. Laden

The DSN is a collection of three advanced communications platforms with enormous and sophisticated antennas that exchange data with NASA's missions in space. NASA’s three deep-space networks are located in Spain, Australia, and California, and are strategically placed 120 degrees apart in longitude in order to afford constant contact with spacecraft while the Sun rises and sets on the equidistant parts of the earth.

All three facilities are managed by the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, with the US.-based antennas located at the GDSCC, which sits some 150 miles northeast of JPL on the grounds of the US Army’s Ft. Irwin National Training Center. Given the distance between JPL and Goldstone, it made sense for NASA/JPL to spread out the 50th anniversary tour over the course of two days.

On the first day, the group toured the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena. For anyone living in Southern California, it's not exactly difficult to get into JPL. Not only does it host regular open houses, but JPL also offers free weekly two-hour public tours for small groups, along with special excursions for schools and other organizations.

if you happen to know someone who works at JPL, you can be signed in, just like at any office with security at the front door—except this one is host to rocket engineers, not spreadsheets. As yet another indication of JPL's relatively open relationship with the community, there's also a museum and two gift stores filled with NASA/JPL-emblazoned merchandise, such as mugs, t-shirts, and astronaut outfits for kids.

Mars Yard III. Image: Tanja M. Laden

Once everyone was inside JPL, the group visited the Mars Yard, where prototypes of NASA’s robotic engineering models are tested in a desolate, Mars-like environment. Developed by the Mars Science Laboratory, it’s actually the third Mars Yard built by JPL. The Mars Yard III is about 215 feet by 115 feet in size, resembling the early stages of a major construction project, yet the groundwork is the project itself.

The uneven landscape, rugged rock formations, and bumpy terrain are all based on images returned to Earth from Mars rovers via the DSN, providing a simulated obstacle course for future rovers. While the paved portions obviously don't look like anything on Mars, it's all meant to test the agility and durability of the rovers before they are launched into space. There's also a garage that stores the robotic models, along with computers, measuring devices, and other necessary requirements for field-testing the mechanisms.

Spacecraft Assembly Facility. Image: Tanja M. Laden

The visitors also stopped by the viewing gallery above the Spacecraft Assembly Facility's clean room inside building 179, where specialists dressed in sterile plastic caps, booties, and billowy white overcoats construct spacecraft and instruments for future missions.

The room was built in 1961 for the Ranger program's unmanned space missions, which obtained images of the Moon, along with the Mariner program's interplanetary missions to Mercury, Venus, and Mars. There's a different insignia on the wall representing each vehicle built in the now-uncontaminated room—back in the day, scientists and engineers were actually allowed to smoke inside.  

Oddly enough, NASA/JPL recently discovered a new species of microbe that's only been seen in a pair of clean rooms, one in Florida and one in South America. But everything appears to be going as planned in JPL's clean room, without the potential interference of weird new microorganisms.

Right now, JPL is using the space to finalize assembly on the Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) radar spacecraft, which aims to provide better management of Earth's water resources through analysis of freeze and thaw states. The Spacecraft Assembly Room is also getting ready to finish putting together the ISS-RapidScat instrument, which will head to the International Space Station later this year in order to provide more detailed weather forecasts by measuring the direction and wind speed of ocean surfaces.

NASA/JPL Mission Control Center. Image: Tanja M. Laden

After checking out the clean room, everyone had the chance to actually sit in the mission support area in building 230, also known as the Space Flight Operations Facility (SFOF), where JPL engineers worked on the now-famous 2012 landing of the Curiosity over as the world watched on TV.

The area is linked to the awe-inspiring Mission Control Center, where engineers communicate with spacecraft across the solar system using the DSN. This is where NASA manages nearly all of its exploration of deep space, including exploration of other planets in our solar system. In 1985, the SFOF was declared a National Historic Landmark and is on the National Register of Historic Places. There's even a plaque on the floor in the middle of the Mission Control Center that reads "The Center of the Universe: 'Dare Mighty Things.’"

34 meter Beam Waveguide Cluster. Image: Tanja M. Laden

The next day, we paid a visit to GDSCC, located in a remote area 40 miles west of Barstow, about halfway between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.  Compared to JPL, visiting Goldstone is an extended procedure, even though they also provide occasional tours.

California's part of the DSN is located at the US Army's Fort Irwin National Training Center for convenient built-in security. Visitors need prior approval to drive onto the premises, and if they manage to get past the gate, their cars are frequently searched. Everyone is encouraged to participate in a security briefing before exploring Goldstone, and obviously, they are required to be escorted at all times. And with the massive antennas at Goldstone located about 10-15 miles from each other, each antenna has another checkpoint with its own guards.

Apollo 26 Meter X-Y Antenna. Image: Tanja M. Laden

Unlike at JPL, there’s really not much to see at Goldstone besides the ten enormous and sophisticated satellite antennas. But the power and importance of these instruments are a great counterpoint to the attractions at JPL, especially since the dishes are responsible for exchanging data with NASA/JPL's missions in space.

Together with the DSN’s other facilities in Spain and Australia, Goldstone is part of the most powerful space-exploration telecommunications system in the world, overseeing more than 30 spacecraft missions. And not only does the DSN support robotic travel to distant planets as well as telescopes seeking out new ones, but it’s responsible for navigating spacecraft and monitoring asteroids, too.

DSS 14 "Mars" 70 meter antenna. Image: Tanja M. Laden

After the DSN dishes, we stopped by Goldstone's Apollo Valley, site of the eponymous 85-foot wide Apollo antenna. The antenna was built exclusively for the Apollo program and received the first audio transmission from the Moon.

If the Apollo antenna seemed large, it was dwarfed by the 24-story tall, 230-foot-wide Mars antenna, which once supported the Voyager 2 spacecraft in its mission to Neptune. In the end, the exhausting two-day field trip was capped off with a ribbon-cutting for Goldstone Tunnel Display, a space-science exhibition located in the narrow, catacomb-like walkway beneath the Mars antenna.

Another shot of Goldstone's 70 meter. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Without GDSCC and the DSN, JPL wouldn’t be able to access the crucial information it needs in order to control the spacecraft and instruments it sends out to study planets and their freaky moons in the solar system. JPL wouldn’t be able to access images and other forms of information about all the comets, meteoroids, asteroids, and whatever else is out there, either.

Meanwhile, without the efforts of JPL, the DSN wouldn’t have a reason to exist, because there wouldn’t be anything to communicate with in the first place. The two entities are really part of a symbiotic system that would hardly be productive if they functioned independently of each other. So whenever people gush about the sexy, top-secret efforts going on at JPL, it’s worth remembering that those efforts wouldn't anywhere without a collection of gigantic satellite antennas out in the middle of nowhere.