NASA’s newest Deep Space Network antenna will receive laser signals from Mars

This artist’s concept shows what Deep Space Station-23, a new antenna dish capable of supporting both radio wave and laser communications, will look like when completed at the Deep Space Network’s Goldstone, California, complex. NASA/JPL-Caltech

In order to communicate with spacecraft traveling millions of miles out into space, you need a very powerful communication system. You need something like NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN), a worldwide array of radio antennas which form the largest telecommunications system in the world. And with planned missions to Mars requiring even greater communications sensitivity, the Deep Space Network is getting an upgrade.

Last week, officials broke ground on the site of a new 112-foot-wide antenna dish in Goldstone, California, which will enable future mission requirements including the ability to beam large amounts of data between Mars and Earth. This will be the DSN’s thirteenth operational antenna upon its completion, which is scheduled for 2022.

“Since the 1960s, when the world first watched live pictures of humans in space and on the moon, to revealing imagery and scientific data from the surface of Mars and vast, distant galaxies, the Deep Space Network has connected humankind with our solar system and beyond,” Badri Younes, NASA’s deputy associate administrator for Space Communications and Navigation, or SCaN, which oversees NASA’s networks, said in a statement.

“This new antenna, the fifth of six currently planned, is another example of NASA’s determination to enable science and space exploration through the use of the latest technology.”

In order to account for the Earth’s rotation and to maintain stable communications, the DSN needs antennas in different locations around the globe. Along with the Goldstone site, there are also antennas in Madrid, Spain and Canberra, Australia. And to allow for future missions, the new dish will be equipped with a receiver for lasers so distant spacecraft can send data.

“Lasers can increase your data rate from Mars by about 10 times what you get from radio,” Suzanne Dodd, director of the Interplanetary Network, the organization that manages the DSN, said in the statement. “Our hope is that providing a platform for optical communications will encourage other space explorers to experiment with lasers on future missions.”

In addition to planned manned missions to Mars, the DSN is also important for keeping in touch with unmanned craft like the Voyager 1 and 2 probes which were launched in the 1970s and have since left our solar system to explore interstellar space.

“The DSN is Earth’s one phone line to our two Voyager spacecraft — both in interstellar space — all our Mars missions, and the New Horizons spacecraft that is now far past Pluto,” said JPL Deputy Director Larry James. “The more we explore, the more antennas we need to talk to all our missions.”