March 1, 2024

NASA’s hybrid antenna ushers in a new era of deep-space laser communication

Deep Space Station 13 at NASA’s Goldstone complex in California – part of the agency’s Deep Space Network – is an experimental antenna that has been retrofitted with an optical terminal. For the first time, this proof of concept received radio frequency and laser signals from deep space at the same time. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Optical Terminal on Deep Space Station 13

A close-up of the optical terminal on Deep Space Station 13 shows seven hexagonal mirrors that collect signals from DSOC’s downlink laser. The mirrors reflect light to a camera directly above, and the signal is then sent to a detector via a fiber optic system. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Deep space communication improvements

The 34-meter (112-foot) radio-frequency optical hybrid antenna, called Deep Space Station 13, has tracked the downlink laser of NASA’s Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC) technology demonstration since November 2023. The demonstration’s flight laser transceiver technique (see image below) is traveling with the agency’s Psyche spacecraft, launched on October 13, 2023.

The hybrid antenna is located at DSN’s Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex near Barstow, California, and is not part of the DSOC experiment. The DSN, DSOC and Psyche are managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.

DSOC flight laser transceiver

The Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC) technology demonstration flight laser transceiver is shown at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California in April 2021, before being installed inside its box-shaped enclosure that later it was integrated into NASA’s Psyche spacecraft. The transceiver consists of a near-infrared laser transmitter to send high-rate data to Earth and a sensitive photon-counting camera to receive low-rate data transmitted from the ground. The transceiver is mounted on a set of brackets and actuators – shown in this photograph – that stabilize the optics from the spacecraft’s vibrations. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“Our hybrid antenna was able to successfully and reliably lock and track the DSOC downlink shortly after the launch of the technology demonstration,” said Amy Smith, DSN deputy manager at Deep Space Station 23 Dish

Now that Goldstone’s experimental hybrid antenna has proven that both radio and laser signals can be received synchronously by the same antenna, specially constructed hybrid antennas (like the one pictured here in an artist’s concept) could one day become a reality. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Advancement in dual functionality

To detect laser photons (quantum particles of light), seven ultra-precise segmented mirrors were fixed inside the curved surface of the hybrid antenna. Resembling NASA’s hexagonal mirrors DSOC Superconducting Nanowire Single Photon Detector

Shown here is an identical copy of the Deep Space Optical Communications, or DSOC, superconducting nanowire single-photon detector that is attached to the 200-inch (5.1-meter) Hale Telescope located at Caltech’s Palomar Observatory in San Diego County, California . Built by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory Microdevices Laboratory in Southern California, the detector is designed to receive near-infrared laser signals from the DSOC flight transceiver traveling with NASA’s Psyche mission into deep space as part of the technology demonstration. . Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“It is a high-tolerance optical system built on a 34-meter flexible structure,” said Barzia Tehrani, deputy manager of ground communications systems and hybrid antenna delivery manager at JPL. “We use a system of mirrors, precise sensors and cameras to actively align and direct the laser from deep space to a fiber reaching the detector.”

Teerani hopes the antenna will be sensitive enough to detect the laser signal sent from JPL Experimental Antenna Project Team

During an experimental antenna test, this photo of the project team at JPL was transmitted by the DSOC transceiver aboard Psyche. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Future Prospects and Infrastructure Development

DSOC is paving the way for higher data rate communications capable of transmitting complex scientific information, high-definition videos and images in support of humanity’s next giant leap: sending humans to Mars. The technical demonstration recently broadcast the first ultra-high-definition video from deep space at record bitrates.

The modernization of radio frequency antennas with optical terminals and the construction of purpose-built hybrid antennas could be a solution to the current lack of a dedicated optical terrestrial infrastructure. The DSN has 14 antennas distributed across facilities in California, Madrid and Canberra, Australia. Hybrid antennas could rely on optical communications to receive large volumes of data and use radio frequencies for less bandwidth-intensive data such as telemetry (health and position information).

“For decades, we have been adding new radio frequencies to the giant DSN antennas located around the globe, so the most viable next step is to include optical frequencies,” Tehrani said. “We can have an asset doing two things at the same time; converting our communication routes into highways and saving time, money and resources.”

Mission and technological advances

DSOC is the latest in a series of optical communications demonstrations funded by NASA’s Technology Demonstration Missions (TDM) program and the agency’s Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) program. JPL, a division of Caltech in Pasadena, California, manages DSOC for TDM within NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate and SCaN within the agency’s Space Operations Mission Directorate.

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