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The radio antennas of the NASA’s Canberra Deep Space Communications Complex are located near the Australian capital. It’s one of three Deep Space Network complexes around the world that keep the agency in contact with over 40 space missions. The DSN marks its 60th anniversary in December 2023.NASA/JPL-Caltech A single radio antenna dish stands alone at the Deep Space Network’s Canberra complex in this photo from 1969, six years after the DSN was founded. Canberra now consists of three 34-meter (112-foot) antennas and one 70-meter (230-foot) antenna.NASA/JPL-Caltech The agency’s DSN provides critical communications and navigation services to dozens of space missions, and it’s being modernized to support dozens more.
NASA’s Deep Space Network marks its 60th year on Dec. 24. In continuous operations since 1963, the DSN is what makes it possible for NASA to communicate with spacecraft at or beyond the Moon. The dazzling galactic images captured by the James Webb Space Telescope, the cutting-edge science data being sent back from Mars by the Perseverance rover, and the historic images sent from the far side of the Moon by Artemis I – they all reached Earth via the network’s giant radio dish antennas.
During 2024, these and other historic contributions from the past 60 years will be celebrated by NASA’s Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) program, which manages and directs the ground-based facilities and services that the DSN provides.
More than 40 missions depend on the network, which is expected to support twice that number in the coming years. That’s why NASA is looking to the future by expanding and modernizing this critical global infrastructure with new dishes, new technologies, and new approaches.
“The DSN is the heart of NASA – it has the vital job of keeping the data flowing between Earth and space,” said Philip Baldwin, acting director of the network services division for SCaN at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “But to support our growing portfolio of robotic missions, and now the human Artemis missions to the Moon, we need to push forward with the next phase of DSN modernization.”
Meeting Added Demands
Managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California for SCaN, the DSN allows missions to track, send commands to, and receive scientific data from faraway spacecraft. To ensure those spacecraft can always connect with Earth, the DSN’s 14 antennas are divided between three complexes spaced equally around the world – in Goldstone, California; Canberra, Australia; and Madrid, Spain.
The Deep Space Network is much more than a deep space messaging service. Learn more about how the DSN carries out radio and gravity science experiments throughout the solar system. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech To make sure the network can maximize coverage between so many missions, schedulers work with DSN team members to secure network support for critical operations. For more efficiency, NASA has also changed how the network is operated: With a protocol called “Follow the Sun,” each complex takes turns running the entire network during their day shift and then hands off control to the next complex at the end of the day in that region – essentially, a global relay race that takes place every 24 hours. The cost savings, in turn, help fund DSN enhancements.
At the same time, NASA has been busy making improvements to increase capacity, from upgrading and adding dishes to developing new technologies that will help support more spacecraft and dramatically increase the amount of data that can be delivered.
One such technology is laser, or optical, communications, which could enable more data to be packed into transmissions. “Laser communications could transform how NASA communicates with faraway space missions,” said Amy Smith, deputy project manager for the DSN at JPL.
After successfully testing the technique in Earth orbit and out to the Moon, NASA is currently using the DSOC (Deep Space Optical Communications) technology demonstration to test laser communications from ever-greater distances. Riding aboard the agency’s Psyche mission, DSOC has already sent video via laser to Earth from 19 million miles (31 million kilometers) away and aims to prove that high-bandwidth data can be sent from as far away as Mars.
“NASA is proving that laser communication is viable, so now we are looking at ways to build optical terminals inside the existing radio antennas,” said Smith. “These hybrid antennas will be able to still transmit and receive radio frequencies but will also support optical frequencies.”
See the missions the DSN is communicating with now Technological Heritage
New technology is something that NASA and the DSN have embraced from their inception. The network’s roots extend to 1958, when JPL was contracted by the U.S. Army to deploy portable radio tracking stations to receive telemetry of the first successful U.S. satellite, Explorer 1, which JPL built. A few days after Explorer 1’s launch, but before the creation of NASA later that year, JPL was tasked with figuring out what would be needed to create an unprecedented telecommunications network to support future deep space missions, beginning with the early Pioneer missions.
After NASA formed in 1958, JPL’s ground stations were named Deep Space Information Facilities, and they operated largely independently from one another until 1963. That’s when the DSN was officially founded and the ground stations were connected to JPL’s new network control center, which was nearing completion. Called the Space Flight Operations Facility, that building remains the “Center of the Universe” through which data from the DSN’s three global complexes flows.
“We have six decades driving technological innovation, supporting hundreds of missions that have made countless discoveries about our planet and the universe it inhabits,” said Bradford Arnold, deputy director for the Interplanetary Network at JPL. “Our amazing workforce that continues to drive that innovation today forms a steadfast foundation upon which we can build the next 60 years of space exploration and scientific advancement.”
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Ian J. O’Neill
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Last Updated Dec 22, 2023 Related Terms
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NASA’s GUSTO Prepares to Map Space Between the Stars
The GUSTO telescope hangs from the hangar crane during telescope pointing tests at the Long Duration Balloon Facility on the Ross Ice Shelf near the U.S. National Science Foundation’s McMurdo Station, Antarctica, on Dec. 6, 2023. Mission specialists were calibrating the star cameras, used to determine the direction of pointing of the telescope. Credit: José Silva on behalf of the GUSTO Team On a vast ice sheet in Antarctica, scientists and engineers are preparing a NASA experiment called GUSTO to explore the universe on a balloon. GUSTO will launch from the Ross Ice Shelf, near the U.S. National Science Foundation’s McMurdo Station research base, no earlier than Dec. 21.
GUSTO, which stands for Galactic/Extragalactic ULDB Spectroscopic Terahertz Observatory, will peer into the space between stars called the interstellar medium. The balloon-borne telescope will help scientists make a 3D map of a large part of the Milky Way in extremely high-frequency radio waves. Examining a 100-square-degree area, GUSTO will explore the many phases of the interstellar medium and the abundances of key chemical elements in the galaxy.
By studying the LMC and comparing it to the Milky Way, we’ll be able to understand how galaxies evolve from the early universe until now.
GUSTO principal investigator
In particular, GUSTO will scan the interstellar medium for carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen because they are critical for life on Earth. These elements can also help scientists disentangle the complex web of processes that sculpt the interstellar medium.
While our galaxy brims with billions of stars, including our Sun, that are interesting in their own right, the space between them holds a wealth of clues about how stars and planets are born.
The interstellar medium is where diffuse, cold gas and dust accumulate into gigantic cosmic structures called molecular clouds, which, under the right conditions, can collapse to form new stars. From the swirling disk of material around the young star, planets can form.
GUSTO is unique in its ability to examine the first part of this process, “to understand how these clouds form in the first place,” Chris Walker, principal investigator of GUSTO at the University of Arizona, said. GUSTO is a collaboration between NASA, the University of Arizona, Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), and the Netherlands Institute for Space Research (SRON); as well as MIT, JPL, the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, and others.
The GUSTO telescope is seen on Nov. 9, 2023, as Colombia Scientific Balloon Facility personnel assist the GUSTO team in flipping the observatory from a horizontal position to a vertical position. The photo was taken at the Long Duration Balloon Facility on the Ross Ice Shelf near the U.S. National Science Foundation’s McMurdo Station, Antarctica. Credit: José Silva on behalf of the GUSTO Team Eventually, when massive stars die and explode as supernovae, massive shock waves ripple through molecular clouds, which can in turn lead to more stars being born, or simply destroy the clouds. GUSTO can also look at this end stage of the molecular clouds.
GUSTO functions as a cosmic radio, equipped to “listen” for particular cosmic ingredients. That’s because it senses the high-frequency signals that atoms and molecules transmit. The “T” in GUSTO stands for “terahertz” – that’s about a thousand times higher than the frequencies that cellphones operate at.
“We basically have this radio system that we built that we can turn the knob and tune to the frequency of those lines,” Walker said. “And if we hear something, we know it’s them. We know it’s those atoms and molecules.”
As the telescope moves across the sky, scientists will use it to map the intensity and velocities of the signals from particular atoms and molecules at each position. “Then we can go back and connect the dots and create an image that looks like a photograph of what the emission looks like,” Walker said.
Observations like these can’t be done for carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen from Earth-based telescopes because of the water vapor in our atmosphere absorbing the light from the atoms and molecules in question, interfering with measurements. On a balloon about 120,000 feet above the ground, GUSTO will fly above most of that water vapor. “For the type of science we do, it’s as good as being in space,” Walker said.
The GUSTO telescope will also reveal the 3D structure of the Large Magellanic Cloud, or LMC, a dwarf galaxy near our Milky Way. The LMC resembles some of the galaxies of the early universe that NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is exploring. But since the LMC is much closer than the distant early galaxies, scientists can examine it in greater detail with GUSTO.
“By studying the LMC and comparing it to the Milky Way, we’ll be able to understand how galaxies evolve from the early universe until now,” Walker explained.
GUSTO is expected to fly for at least 55 days on a 39 million cubic-foot zero-pressure balloon, a type of balloon that can fly high for long periods of time in the Austral Summer over Antarctica and has the diameter of a football field as it floats.
GUSTO team member José Silva, Ph.D. student at the Netherlands Institute for Space Research (SRON), stands next to the Long Duration Balloon Facility sign on the Ross Ice Shelf, 8 miles from the U.S. National Science Foundation’s McMurdo Station, Antarctica, on Nov. 9, 2023. Credit: Geoffrey Palo on behalf of the GUSTO Team Antarctica provides an ideal launch location for GUSTO. During the southern hemisphere’s summer, the continent gets constant sunlight, so a scientific balloon can be extra stable there. Plus, the atmospheric zone around the South Pole generates cold rotating air – creating a phenomenon called an anticyclone, which enables balloons to fly in circles without disturbance.
“Missions will fly in circles around the South Pole for days or weeks at a time, which is really valuable to the science community,” said Andrew Hamilton, chief of the NASA Balloon Program Office at the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. “The longer they have for observation, the more science they can get.
GUSTO is the first balloon-borne experiment in NASA’s Explorer program. It has the same scientific reach as the program’s space-borne satellites, such as TESS (the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) and IXPE (Imaging X-Ray Polarimetry Explorer).
“With GUSTO, we’re really trying to trailblaze,” said Kieran Hegarty, Program Manager for GUSTO at APL. “We want to show that balloon investigations do return compelling science.”
A total of twelve mission team members from University of Arizona and APL are on site in Antarctica performing the final checks before GUSTO’s launch.
With seals and penguins nearby, Walker and colleagues are hard at work readying this experiment for its ultimate adventure in the sky. For Walker, GUSTO represents some 30 years of effort, the outgrowth of many experiments from Earth-based telescopes and other balloon efforts.
“We all feel very fortunate and privileged to do a mission like this – to have the opportunity to put together the world’s most advanced terahertz instrument ever created, and then drag it halfway around the world and then launch it,” he said. “It’s a challenge, but we feel honored and humbled to be in the position to do it.”
About the Mission
In March 2017, NASA Astrophysics Division selected the Explorer Mission of Opportunity GUSTO (Galactic/Extragalactic ULDB Spectroscopic Terahertz Observatory) to measure emissions from the interstellar medium to help scientists determine the life cycle of interstellar gas by surveying a large region of our Milky Way galaxy and the Large Magellanic Cloud. The GUSTO mission is led by Principal Investigator Christopher Walker from the University of Arizona in Tucson. The team also includes the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, which provided the balloon platform to mount the instrumentation, known as the gondola, and the GUSTO project management. The University of Arizona provided the GUSTO telescope and the focal plane instrument, which incorporates detector technologies from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Arizona State University in Tempe, and SRON Netherlands Institute for Space Research.
Last Updated Dec 18, 2023 Related Terms
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Library of Congress In this image from Dec. 17, 1903, Orville Wright makes the first powered, controlled flight on Earth as his brother Wilbur looks on. Orville Wright covered 120 feet in 12 seconds during the first flight of the day. The Wright brothers made four flights that day, each longer than the last.
The aircraft, Flyer 1, was wrecked beyond repair after the fourth flight, but Orville took the wreckage home to Ohio and restored it. It went on display at the London Science Museum until 1948 when the Smithsonian Institution took ownership.
The Wrights’ legacy has traveled beyond Earth; engineers attached a postage-stamp-sized piece of Flyer 1’s wing material to a cable underneath NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter. As of Dec. 2, 2023, Ingenuity has traveled a total distance of 9.6 miles with a total flight time of 2 hours 1 minute 5 seconds. Its ground-breaking mission continues, paving the way for future aerial explorers of Mars.
Explore this historic flight and its effect on aeronautics.
Image Credit: Library of Congress
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On Dec. 17, 1903, humanity’s long-held dream of flying came true. Ideas of flying date back centuries, from the Greek legend of Icarus and Daedalus, to kite flying in China, to the development of hydrogen-filled balloons in 18th century France, to early experiments with gliders in 19th century England and Germany. Around the turn of the 20th century, advances in engine technology and aerodynamics enabled powered flight using heavier-than-air machines, but attempts by leading designers proved unsuccessful. The honor of the first sustained and controlled flight of a powered heavier-than-air aircraft went to two bicycle shop owners from Dayton, Ohio, Orville and Wilbur Wright. The brothers combined the mechanical experience from their business with the fundamental breakthrough invention of three-axis control to enable them to steer the aircraft and maintain its equilibrium. Their 12-second flight changed the world forever.
Left: Orville Wright during the first powered flight of a heavier-than-air aircraft; Wilbur is standing to the right of the aircraft. Right: The Wrights’ third flight on Dec. 17, 1903. Image credits: courtesy National Park Service.
After several unsuccessful attempts, on Dec. 17, 1903, at Kill Devil Hills near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, Orville Wright completed the first powered flight of a heavier-than-air aircraft known as the Wright Flyer. The flight lasted just 12 seconds, traveled 120 feet, and reached a top speed of 6.8 miles per hour. Amazing for the day, one of the five people to witness this historic first flight snapped a photograph of the event. The brothers completed three more flights that day, taking turns piloting, the longest traveling 852 feet in 59 seconds. The highest altitude reached in any of the flights was about 10 feet. The aircraft sustained damage at the end of its fourth flight, and gusty winds tipped it over, wrecking it beyond repair. The aircraft never flew again, but Orville took the wreckage home to Ohio and restored it. It went on display at the London Science Museum until 1948 when the Smithsonian Institution took ownership. Visitors can view the Wright Flyer in the Wright Brothers & The Invention of the Aerial Age exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum (NASM) in Washington, D.C.
Distant view of the Wright Flyer, at left, after its fourth flight on Dec. 17, 1903. Image credit: courtesy Library of Congress.
Bronze statues recreate the day of the first powered flight at the Wright Brothers National Memorial near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Image credit: courtesy National Park Service.
Left: Wilbur, left, and Orville Wright. Image credit: courtesy Carillon Historical Park. Right: The Wright Flyer at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum (NASM) in Washington, D.C. Image credit: courtesy NASM.
The Wrights continued flying, building more and more advanced aircraft, and paving the way for future aerial explorers. By 1905, they completed a 24-mile flight in their Flyer III. Others in the United States and Europe made advances in the rapidly expanding field of aviation, and World War I (1914-1918) saw the first use of aircraft in warfare. The first scheduled commercial passenger flight took place on Jan. 1, 1914, between St. Petersburg and Tampa, Florida, shortening travel between the two cities by more than 90 minutes. The Post Office emerged as one of the first major users of airplanes to speed up the delivery of mail across the country.
Left: Seal of NACA, including an illustration of the first flight at Kitty Hawk. Middle: Seal of NASA. Right: Apollo 14 Lunar Module Kitty Hawk on the surface of the Moon.
Within a dozen years after the first powered flight, the U.S. government formed the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA) to advance the field of aeronautics. Research conducted at NACA facilities – Langley Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton, Virginia; Ames Aeronautical Laboratory in Mountain View, California; Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory in Cleveland, Ohio; and Muroc Flight Test Unit at Edwards Air Force Base near Lancaster, California – led to breakthroughs that greatly advanced the field of aeronautics including supersonic flight. In 1958, in response to Soviet advances in space flight, the U.S. government established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), a civilian agency to lead American space activities. At its core, the new agency incorporated NACA’s facilities and employees. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy gave NASA the goal of landing a man on the Moon within the decade. Just 65 years after the Wrights made their pioneering flight on the sands of Kitty Hawk, Apollo 11 astronauts left humanity’s first footprints on the dusty surface of the Moon. To honor the Wrights’ accomplishment, the Apollo 14 astronauts named their Lunar Module Kitty Hawk.
Left: Display of the wood and fabric pieces of the Wright Flyer that Apollo 11 astronaut Neil A. Armstrong took to the Moon. Image credit: courtesy National Air and Space Museum. Right: Display of the pieces of wood and fabric from the Wright Flyer that launched on space shuttle Challenger’s STS-51L mission and recovered from the wreckage. Image credit: courtesy North Carolina Museum of History.
Pieces of the Wright Flyer, sometimes called Kitty Hawk, have flown in space, carried there by astronauts with a geographic connection and a sense of history. In 1969, under a special arrangement with the U.S. Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio, Apollo 11 astronaut Neil A. Armstrong, like the Wright brothers a native of Ohio, took with him a piece of wood from the Wright Flyer’s left propeller and a piece of muslin fabric (8 by 13 inches) from its upper left wing. The items, stowed in his Lunar Module Eagle personal preference kit, landed with him and fellow astronaut Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin at Tranquility Base, and returned to Earth with third crew member Michael Collins in the Command Module Columbia. Visitors can view these items near the Wright Flyer at the NASM. In 1986, North Carolina native NASA astronaut Michael J. Smith arranged with the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh to take a piece of wood and a swatch of fabric salvaged, and authenticated by Orville Wright, from the damaged Wright Flyer aboard space shuttle Challenger’s STS-51L mission. Although Challenger and its crew perished in the tragic accident, divers recovered the artifacts from the wreckage and visitors can view them at the North Carolina Museum of History. Astronaut John H. Glenn, an Ohioan like the Wrights and Armstrong, took different pieces of the Wright Flyer when he returned to space aboard STS-95 in 1998. In October 2000, North Carolina native NASA astronaut William S. McArthur, on behalf of North Carolina’s First Flight Centennial Commission, flew a piece from the Wright Flyer donated by the National Park Service. McArthur carried a fragment of muslin fabric from the aircraft’s wing to the International Space Station during the STS-92 mission, the 100th space shuttle flight, to promote the then-upcoming 100th anniversary of the first powered flight.
Left: The autonomous helicopter Ingenuity, near center of photograph, makes the first powered flight on Mars, imaged by the Perseverance rover. Middle: Routes of the Perseverance rover, white, and the Ingenuity helicopter, yellow, in Mars’ Jezero Crater. Right: A piece of cloth from the Wright Flyer’s wing attached to the underside of Ingenuity’s solar panel.
A piece of the Wright Flyer has even traveled beyond the Earth-Moon system. When the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover landed in Mars’ Jezero Crater on Feb. 18, 2021, it carried underneath it a four-pound autonomous helicopter named Ingenuity. Engineers attached a small piece of cloth the size of a postage stamp from the Wright Flyer’s wing to a cable underneath the helicopter’s solar panel. On April 19, 2021, when Ingenuity lifted off to a height of 10 feet, it marked the first powered aircraft flight on a world other than Earth. Ingenuity’s first flight lasted 39 seconds in an area NASA named Wright Brothers Field. The United Nations International Civil Aviation Organization gave the field the airport code of JZRO – for Jezero Crater – and the helicopter type designator IGY, with the call-sign INGENUITY. With no humans present to record the event, the Perseverance rover imaged Ingenuity’s first flight. As of Dec. 2, 2023, Ingenuity has completed 67 flights over 947 Sols, far exceeding its technology demonstration goal of five flights over 30 Sols (Martian days), with a total flight time of 2 hours 1 minute 5 seconds, traveling a total distance of 9.6 miles and reaching a maximum altitude of 78.7 feet. Its ground-breaking mission continues, paving the way for future aerial explorers of Mars.
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