The Deep Space Network: How Humans Communicate with the Stars


September 30, 2016

As technology consultants, we’re always intrigued by interesting network designs, and there are few more interesting than the Deep Space Network (DSN). When NASA launches probes, satellites, and missions into space or broadcasts live from the moon, they have to transmit that data somehow. That’s where the DSN comes in.

From the international space station orbiting Earth to the Voyager 2 spacecraft some 10 billion miles away, the DSN is used to send and transmit data. Truly, the DSN makes all our space exploration missions possible.


The Deep Space Network

DSN today is composed of three main sites: Madrid in Spain, Canberra in Australia, and Goldstone in California. Among these three complexes are 13 mammoth antennas used to communicate with space. Each antenna can swivel and must accurately point directly at the spacecraft to which it connects. Otherwise, the concentrated radio waves used will miss the mark. When communicating across billions of miles, a small inaccuracy could miss the spacecraft entirely.


Uses for the Deep Space Network

The DSN is used for a wide variety of purposes. Though a primary function of the DSN, to limit its usefulness simply to data transmission would not do it justice.


Telemetry: The DSN acquires, processes, decodes, and distributes the radio signals of nearby and distant spacecraft.

Spacecraft Command: NASA uses the DSN to control their spacecraft in real time. The antennas around the world send signals to the craft, and it responds accordingly.

Tracking: Spacecraft location can be determined with astounding precision using the DSN. For example, at the time this blog was written, the Voyager 2 was exactly 16,761,465,072 km from Earth and rising.

Radio Science: The DSN can be used to conduct experiments with radio waves. Previous experiments include probing the rings of Saturn and revealing the interior composition of the planets and moons.

Asteroid Mapping: Nearby asteroids are also mapped and tracked using the DSN.


A Brief History of the DSN

Over 50 years ago, the United States government established a network to communicate with their satellites in space. Granted, at that time, there was only a single satellite in orbit, but nonetheless, three large radio antennas were placed in Nigeria, Singapore, and California. These stations were used to plot the orbit of the satellite, Explorer 1. It wouldn’t be until October of that year that separate military space programs were consolidated into the civilian-run NASA.

Though initially intended to be used exclusively for the Explorer 1 mission, NASA established the DSN as a universal communications facility to be used with every space mission moving forward.

The DSN has helped in one form or another with all of the Apollo, Viking, and Voyager missions conducted in the latter half of the 20th century.


Deep Space Network Now

Reading about the Deep Space Network in theory is interesting, but seeing it in action is another thing entirely.

NASA supports and maintains the Deep Space Network Now website. It gives a visual representation of each satellite dish we use in the DSN and their current activity. It shows a chart of the satellites and even lists what probes, satellites, or missions the antenna is communicating with.

For example, at the time this blog was written, this was the status of one of the DSN antennas.

  • Antenna Name: DSS 25
  • Location: Goldstone, California
  • Spacecraft: OSIRIS-REx
  • Range: 99 million km
  • Round Trip Light Time: 61 seconds

To translate that data, this means that the DSS25 antenna is communicating with the OSIRIS-REx mission as the satellite orbits the Earth some 7 million kilometers away. That is such a great distance, in fact, that the data takes over 45 seconds to traverse the millions of kilometers between the spacecraft and the DSN.

Browse some of our other satellites at the Deep Space Network Now website.


The End of the DSN

The DSN has long been our single conduit to outer space, and but it may soon be out of date. Modern missions will soon be equipped with a “beacon mode service” manner of communication. These beacons will send daily health status data that can be picked up by much more modestly sized antennas.

Until then, the DSN will still be used as normal and may still find usefulness in radio wave experimentation.

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For Further Reading

NASA Launches Mission: OSIRIS-REx And Life On Earth

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