NASA’s new ‘hybrid antenna’ improves deep space communications

NASA equipped its aging communications network with a hybrid antenna that allowed it to receive radio frequency and laser signals for the first time, helping the space agency cope with a growing number of missions traveling into deep space.

Deep Space Station 13, an experimental 112-foot (34-meter) radio-frequency optical hybrid antenna, tracked and decoded the signal from a gold-plated laser transceiver attached to NASA’s Psyche asteroid probe, the space agency’s most recent discovery. Announced. Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC) experiment launched aboard the spacecraft Spacecraft Psyche October 13, 2023 as the first demonstration of laser or optical communications from places as far away as Mars.

On January 1, 2024, the hybrid antenna uploaded a photo of the hardware that was uploaded to DSOC ahead of Psyche’s launch. “Our hybrid antenna “was able to successfully and reliably jam and track the DSOC downlink shortly after launching the technology demonstration,” Amy Smith, “It also received an RF signal from Psyche, so we demonstrated synchronous radio communications.” and optical frequency for the first time in deep space.”

The antenna is part of NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN), a collection of giant radio antennas scattered around the world that the space agency has used to relay communications on its deep space missions for the past 60 years. The network consists of 14 antennas spread across three deep space communications facilities at Goldstone in California’s Mojave Desert, another near Madrid, Spain, and a third near Canberra, Australia. The recent experiment took place at a California facility.

A reliable communications network struggles to meet demand as NASA launches more deep space missions. A recent report from NASA’s Office of Inspector General found that Demand for DSN sometimes exceeds supply by up to 40%. By upgrading radio antennas with experimental hybrid capabilities, NASA also hopes to transmit more data at faster speeds. to help DSN meet high demand.

By the end of 2023, the hybrid antenna was transmitting data over a distance of 20 million miles (32 million kilometers) at 15.63 megabits per second. . That’s about 40 times faster than radio frequency communications over that distance, according to NASA.

This dramatic increase in data rates allows more detailed information to be transmitted from missions into deep space, improving our understanding of the solar system. . It also opens the way to more effective communication with future space exploration, potentially revolutionizing the way we explore our Universe. In addition, laser communications can transmit data at significantly higher speeds, enabling the rapid transfer of high-resolution images and extensive scientific data from distant space missions.

Deep Space Station 13 has seven ultra-precise segmented mirrors (similar to the Webb Telescope’s hexagonal mirrors) attached to the inside of its curved surface. Each mirror reflects laser photons and redirects them into a high-exposure camera connected to an antenna subreflector, which is located above the center of the giant DSN dish. The laser signal collected by the camera is then transmitted along an optical fiber feeding a cryogenically cooled nanowire-based semiconductor single-photon detector, which acts as a downlink ground station.

“We use a system of mirrors, precision sensors and cameras to actively align and direct the laser from deep space onto the fiber that reaches the ‘detector,’” said Barzia Tehrani, associate manager of ground communications systems and hybrid antenna delivery manager. to JPL, in a statement.

The team wants to test the hybrid antenna at a distance equivalent to the distance between Earth and Mars at their farthest point (or two and a half times the distance between the Sun and Earth). By June, the Psyche spacecraft will reach this distance and its onboard laser transceiver will be ready to transmit a signal to the antenna.

In December 2023 DSOC broadcast a 15-second video an orange tabby cat named Taters chasing a laser pointer up and down a couch 19 million miles from Earth. It’s a little hard to top this, but let’s see what the laser transceiver has in store for us next.

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This content has been automatically translated from the original material. Due to machine translation nuances, there may be slight differences. For the original version click here.

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