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Calling Long-Distance: 10 Stellar Moments in 2022 for Space Communications and Navigation

Calling Long-Distance: 10 Stellar Moments in 2022 for Space Communications and Navigation

Calling Long-Distance: 10 Stellar Moments in 2022 for Space Communications and Navigation

Just like your phone needs Wi-Fi or data services to text or call – NASA spacecraft need communication services.

Giant antennas on Earth and a fleet of satellites in space enable missions to send data and images back to our home planet and keep us in touch with our astronauts in space. Using this data, scientists and engineers can make discoveries about Earth, the solar system, and beyond. The antennas and satellites make up our space communications networks: the Near Space Network and Deep Space Network.

Check out the top ten moments from our space comm community: 

NASA’s Orion spacecraft in space looking at the Moon from a camera mounted on one of its solar arrays. The Orion spacecraft appears in the foreground. The Earth and the Moon appear in the far distance against the blackness of space. The Moon appears just slightly larger than Earth. Credit: NASAALT

1. Space communication networks helped the Artemis I mission on its historic journey to the Moon. From the launch pad to the Moon and back, the Near Space Network and Deep Space Network worked hand-in-hand to seamlessly support Artemis I. These networks let mission controllers send commands up to the spacecraft and receive important spacecraft health data, as well as incredible images of the Moon and Earth.

The Pathfinder Technology Demonstration 3 spacecraft with hosted TeraByte InfraRed Delivery (TBIRD) payload communicating with laser links down to Earth. Credit: NASA/Ames Research Center

2. Spacecraft can range in size – from the size of a bus to the size of a cereal box. In May 2022, we launched a record-breaking communication system the size of a tissue box. TBIRD showcases the benefits of a laser communications system, which uses infrared light waves rather than radio waves to communicate more data at once. Just like we have upgraded from 3G to 4G to 5G on our phones, we are upgrading its space communications capabilities by implementing laser comms!

Image of the white DSN 34-meter antenna lit up against a dark black sky in Madrid, Spain. Credit: NASA/JPL-CaltechALT

3. The Deep Space Network added a new 34-meter (111-foot) antenna to continue supporting science and exploration missions investigating our solar system and beyond. Deep Space Station 53 went online in February 2022 at our Madrid Deep Space Communications Complex. It is the fourth of six antennas being added to expand the network’s capacity.

An artistic rendering of the Earth and Moon with the Moon in the forefront. Surrounding the two planetary bodies are vibrant networking lines showing robust communications on Earth and at the Moon. Credit: NASA/Dave RyanALT

4. You’ve probably seen in the news that there are a lot of companies working on space capabilities. The Near Space Network is embracing the aerospace community’s innovative work and seeking out multiple partnerships. In 2022, we met with over 300 companies in hopes of beginning new collaborative efforts and increasing savings.

The ILLUMA-T payload in a Goddard cleanroom with a covered optical module and various wires and simulators. Credit: NASA/Taylor Mickal ALT

5. Similar to TBIRD, we’re developing laser comms for the International Space Station. The terminal will show the benefits of laser comms while using a new networking technique called High Delay/Disruption Tolerant Networking that routes data four times faster than current systems. This year, engineers tested and proved the capability in a lab.

The image is divided horizontally by an undulating line between a cloudscape forming a nebula along the bottom portion and a comparatively clear upper portion. Speckled across both portions is a starfield. The upper portion of the image is blueish, and has wispy translucent cloud-like streaks rising from the nebula below. The orangish cloudy formation in the bottom half varies in density and ranges from translucent to opaque. The cloud-like structure of the nebula contains ridges, peaks, and valleys – an appearance very similar to a mountain range. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI. Image processing: J. DePasquale (STScI).ALT

6. In 2021, we launched the James Webb Space Telescope, a state-of-the-art observatory to take pictures of our universe. This year, the Deep Space Network received the revolutionary first images of our solar system from Webb. The telescope communicates with the network’s massive antennas at three global complexes in Canberra, Australia; Madrid, Spain; and Goldstone, California.

Two engineers look across the vast Arizona desert as they test new 4G and 5G communications technologies. Credit: NASA/Glenn Research CenterALT

7. Just like we use data services on our phone to communicate, we’ll do the same with future rovers and astronauts exploring the Moon. In 2022, the Lunar LTE Studies project, or LunarLiTES, team conducted two weeks of testing in the harsh depths of the Arizona desert, where groundbreaking 4G LTE communications data was captured in an environment similar to the lunar South Pole. We’re using this information to determine the best way to use 4G and 5G networking on the Moon.

From left, NASA Deputy Associate Administrator and Program Manager for Space Communications and Navigation Badri Younes, Mayor of Laingsburg Johanna Botha, and Director General of South Africa's Department of Science and Innovation Dr. Phil Mjwara break ground at the site of a new Lunar Exploration Ground Sites antenna in Matjiesfontein, South Africa Nov. 8. Credit: NASA/Al FeinbergALT

8. A new Near Space Network antenna site was unveiled in Matjiesfontein, South Africa. NASA and the South African Space Agency celebrated a ground-breaking at the site of a new comms antenna that will support future Artemis Moon missions. Three ground stations located strategically across the globe will provide direct-to-Earth communication and navigation capabilities for lunar missions.

Space Communications and Navigation intern, Ashwin Mishra, testing equipment in the Quantum Communications Lab. Credit: NASA/Glenn Research CenterALT

9. Quantum science aims to better understand the world around us through the study of extremely small particles. April 14, 2022, marked the first official World Quantum Day celebration, and we participated alongside other federal agencies and the National Quantum Coordination Office. From atomic clocks to optimizing laser communications, quantum science promises to greatly improve our advances in science, exploration, and technology.

An artistic rendering of the DART mission approaching the asteroid Dimorphos, near its parent asteroid, Didymos. NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Steve GribbenALT

10. We intentionally crashed a spacecraft into an asteroid to test technology that could one day be used to defend Earth from asteroids. The Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART, mission successfully collided with the asteroid Dimorphos at a rate of 4 miles per second (6.1 kilometers per second), with real-time video enabled by the Deep Space Network. Alongside communications and navigation support, the global network also supports planetary defense by tracking near-Earth objects.

We look forward to many more special moments connecting Earth to space in the coming year.

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