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The solar system is networked…


I was reading about a few of my favourite long term NASA projects today, specifically the New Horizons mission to Pluto which is in its seventh year, when I discovered mention of the Deep Space Network. Now, I’d never really thought about how NASA manages communication with their projects; I had always assumed that each project had their own dedicated facility for monitoring communications and sending back commands to the unmanned probes. This, of course, totally violates a major principle of engineering: if you’re going to do something more than once, isolate that function in a single place instead of rebuilding it over and over again. So, it totally makes sense that there’s basically a space phone company. But, causally running into¬† the reality of it was still a little shocking. Not to mention the fact that I’ve never even heard of this organization; I can’t remember any news outlet ever mentioning them. And here’s the kicker: they’ve been around since 1958. That’s right! You read that date correctly: 1958. These guys actually pre-date NASA itself by almost a year! Check out their website.

So, the DSN provides all the telecommunications infrastructure for its “users” just like the local telephone exchange provides services for its “users”. They have three transceiver stations set up in isolated locations on Earth, each 128 degrees away from each other; the locations, plus the ability to link each station into a single array, means that they can constantly monitor all the projects that are beyond Earth orbit. The teams building the next Mars probe don’t have to worry about how they are going to communicate with their project on Earth; all they have to do is get an account with DSN, determine a frequency that they’re going to use, and away they go. That’s probably a gross oversimplification but you get the idea. How cool is that?!

The sad foot note to this story is that the DSN, like a lot of things in America, is in trouble: their systems are ageing and will need replacements and upgrades very soon. They have a serious problem staying compatible with legacy systems: programs like Voyager are still out there and still transmitting back information long after they were expected to die. And I thought the End of Life program at Speakeasy, Inc. was frustrating! So, as more and more of these projects are being launched and need loving care, the work load for a system that badly needs a facelift is just going to get higher and higher. Man, I do not envy these guys! Engineering is filled with heroes like the DSN: organizations that no one has ever heard of, but are providing essential services through budget and resource limitations. To the people at the DSN I say: “Chapeau bas messieurs!”

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