The interplanetary switchboard is getting jammed, NASA has warned. Its Deep Space Network – a global array of antennae that communicate with spacecraft – is getting overloaded, as space gets busier than ever before.
Canberra’s facility and its sisters in California and Spain have had recent upgrades, but DSN manager Brad Arnold says that won’t be enough as more missions are planned.
Those three sites allow constant communication with spacecraft. As the Earth turns, one site will hand over to the next to ensure an uninterrupted ability to command spacecraft, and to pick up the images and information they’re sending.
NASA calls it “the largest and most sensitive scientific telecommunications system in the world”.
“When it comes to making a long-distance call, it’s hard to top…” it says.
More than 30 spacecraft are currently on the line, talking to the five antennae at Tidbinbilla. One of the antennae, which was then at Honeysuckle Creek, famously received the first pictures of the 1969 Apollo 11 Moon walk. That project was immortalised in the 2020 film The Dish.
The station is now working with the Mars missions, the New Horizons spacecraft that is travelling to Pluto, and Voyager 1 and 2, which have now gone interstellar. (The DSN livestreams which telescope is communicating with which spacecraft here.)
It receives thousands of images and hundreds of gigabytes of data from dozens of spacecraft every day. A recent upgrade installed a new, more powerful transmitter system, and highly sensitive receivers. Known as Deep Space Station 43, the 70-metre antenna will play a role in upcoming human missions to the Moon and Mars.
But according to a US report in Space News, Arnold said despite recent upgrades, the system “can’t keep up with the demand”.
“So missions should expect to be getting less availability,” he says. They’ve modelled how communications will work in the future, and over the next decade they’ll come up about 40 per cent short on what they need.
Critical parts of missions – landings, for example – will get prioritised over less-critical parts. According to Arnold, even more of the bandwidth will be sucked up once Artemis missions to the Moon begin.
For now, they’re hunting other solutions. Arnold mentions the possibility of switching to different frequencies. The European Space Agency is looking at options including optical communication and alternative navigation technology. Australia could play a role in future technologies, too.
The Australian Space Agency’s Communications Technologies and Services Roadmap points to Australia’s “rich history” in long-range communications and possible future technologies. The Agency announced earlier this year that the European Space Agency was building a new deep space dish in Western Australia that will “be so sensitive it can detect signals far weaker than the signal from a mobile phone – if there were one – on the surface of Mars”.