March 1, 2024

NASA’s New Experimental Antenna Tracks Lasers from Deep Space

This article has been reviewed in accordance with Science X’s editorial process and policies. The editors have highlighted the following attributes, ensuring the credibility of the content:

checked

trusted source

review


This artist’s concept shows what Deep Space Station-23, a new satellite dish at the Deep Space Network complex in Goldstone, California, will look like when completed in several years. DSS-23 will communicate with NASA space missions using radio waves and lasers. The retractable covers can be spread across the mirrors in the center of the dish to protect them from the elements. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

× to close


This artist’s concept shows what Deep Space Station-23, a new satellite dish at the Deep Space Network complex in Goldstone, California, will look like when completed in several years. DSS-23 will communicate with NASA space missions using radio waves and lasers. The retractable covers can be spread across the mirrors in the center of the dish to protect them from the elements. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

An experimental antenna has received radio frequency and near-infrared laser signals from NASA’s Psyche spacecraft as it travels through deep space. This shows that it is possible for the giant satellite dishes of NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN), which communicate with spacecraft via radio waves, to be adapted for optical or laser communications.

By packing more data into transmissions, optical communication will enable new space exploration capabilities while supporting the DSN as demand on the network grows.

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 technician 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.

“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, deputy manager of DSN at JPL. “It also received Psyche’s radio frequency signal, so we demonstrated synchronous radio and optical frequency communications in deep space for the first time.”

By the end of 2023, the hybrid antenna had transferred data 20 million miles (32 million kilometers) away at a rate of 15.63 megabits per second – about 40 times faster than radio frequency communications at that distance. On January 1, 2024, the antenna downlinked a photograph of the team that had been uploaded to DSOC prior to Psyche’s launch.

Two for one

To detect laser photons (quantum particles of light), seven ultra-precise segmented mirrors were fixed inside the curved surface of the hybrid antenna. Resembling the hexagonal mirrors of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, these segments mimic the light-gathering aperture of a 1-meter aperture telescope. As photons from the laser arrive at the antenna, each mirror reflects the photons and precisely redirects them to a high-exposure camera attached to the antenna’s sub-reflector suspended above the center of the antenna.

The laser signal collected by the camera is then transmitted through an optical fiber that feeds a cryogenically cooled semiconductor nanowire single-photon detector. Designed and built by JPL’s Microdevices Laboratory, the detector is identical to the one used at Caltech’s Palomar Observatory in San Diego County, California, which serves as DSOC’s downlink ground station.

“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.”

Tehrani hopes the antenna will be sensitive enough to detect the laser signal sent from Mars at its furthest point from Earth (2 ½ times the distance from the Sun to Earth). Psyche will be at this distance in June, en route to the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, to investigate the metal-rich asteroid Psyche.

The seven-segment reflector on the antenna is a proof of concept for an enlarged, more powerful version with 64 segments – the equivalent of an 8-meter aperture telescope – that could be used in the future.

An infrastructure solution

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 roads into highways and saving time, money and resources.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *