Deep Space Network: Can You Hear Me Now?

To meet the major challenges ahead, NASA needs to spend $100 million over the next 20 years on new technologies that will be hindered by unreliable ground communication.

President Bushs vision for space exploration calls for human and robotic missions to the Moon and Mars, not to mention other far-flung planets. The problem: NASA needs an improved space communications network, according to the General Accountability Office.

In a report released May 22, the GAO noted that NASAs Deep Space Network—a series of antennas located in Goldstone, Calif., Madrid, Spain and Canberra, Australia—isnt likely to support such space exploration.

The conclusion: NASA may spend $100 million over the next two decades on new technologies and facilities that will be hampered by the lack of reliable ground communication.

"While NASAs Deep Space Network can meet most requirements of its current workload, it may not be able to meet near-term and future demand," concluded the GAO.

"The system—suffering from an aging, fragile infrastructure with some crucial components over 40 years old—has lost science data during routine operations and critical events."

Meanwhile, new customers of NASAs network face capacity constraints as NASA juggles new projects with old ones such as the Voyager program, said the GAO.

And if Bushs vision turns into reality, the network will be stressed more.

Typically, the Deep Space Network handles about 35 to 40 missions a year. Data from these missions are compiled at NASAs Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Among other issues cited in the GAO report:

  • The Deep Space Networks Goldstone complex is down, on average, 16 hours per week for maintenance and repairs due to problems associated with its age. Some antennas were built in the 1950s and 1960s.
  • During a critical event for the Deep Impact Mission on July 4, 2005, corrosion of the sub reflector on the 70-meter dish at DSNs Madrid site caused an unexpected disruption in service.
  • In November 2005, failure of a prime network server resulted in several hours of unexpected downtime, which in turn caused considerable loss of data to four research projects. During this anomaly, the Stardust, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Odyssey and Mars Global Surveyor missions lost a total of 241 minutes of coverage to their missions.

NASAs big challenge will be coming up with a plan to upgrade its communication networks to handle future demand. To that end, stay tuned.

/zimages/6/28571.gifClick here to read about NASAs SGI supercomputer.

The GAO reported that NASA has to submit a plan for updating its space communications architecture for low-Earth orbital operations and deep space to ensure it can handle demand 20 years into the future.

The plan is due to House Committee on Science and the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation no later than Feb. 17, 2007.

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