News Column

Goldstone complex is one-third of NASA's Deep Space Network

May 4, 2014

By Steve Hunt, Desert Dispatch, Barstow, Calif.

May 04--FORT IRWIN -- The Mojave Desert west of Interstate 15 some 38 miles outside of Barstow looks like a scene out of the 1800s. Barren, unspoiled desert stretches for miles, but the land is far from flat. Rocky hills of varying elevation dot the landscape, with wild burros roaming free among the pale yellow wildflowers.

It would not be all that surprising to come upon cowboys on horseback in such surroundings, or even settlers in wagon trains, for that matter.

Instead, huge, white, round, movable radio telescope antennas -- some as tall as 20 stories high -- pop unexpectedly out of the terrain every few miles.

It is an area that time has long forgotten, but NASA has not. This is the home of NASA'sGoldstone Deep Space Communications Complex, one-third of the space agency's Deep Space Network. The DSN antennas communicate with spacecraft, control them and get them to their destinations.

"Goldstone started in 1958, almost before NASA was born," Jet Propulsion Laboratory Director Dr. Charles Elachi said. "The Goldstone facility is the heart of the Deep Space Network. Our nation has more than 20 spacecraft across the solar system. And without the Deep Space Network they would be useless."

Goldstone actually did start before NASA became operational on Oct. 1, 1958. It began communicating with three spacecraft in 1963. Today, its seven active antennas communicate with more than 30 spacecraft. Four other antennas have been decommissioned. There are seven antenna sites positioned within about 17 miles of desert on Fort Irwin.

"This is the location where we develop all the new technology that is deployed in Spain and Australia," Elachi said.

NASA and Goldstone's operator, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge in the foothills above Pasadena, are commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Deep Space Network this year. A celebration was held at Goldstone early last month, as was another later in April in Washington, D.C. Yet another is planned in a few months in Madrid, Spain.

Madrid is where a second part of the Deep Space Network is located. The third DSN complex makes its home in Canberra, Australia. Each is spaced 120 degrees apart from the next, giving American spacecraft 24/7 communications coverage. Exelis, a subcontractor of JPL, provides the more than 100 employees who run the Goldstone complex.

"It's so special it's being celebrated around the world," Exelis DSN program manager Sonny Giroux said of the Deep Space Network.

However, it all started at Goldstone, a deserted gold mining town 20 miles north-northeast of Calico. Various historians say the town's first boom came around 1850, and the last in about 1920. Several mines flourished between 1910 and 1917. By some accounts, as many as 150 men were working the mines by 1916. By 1920, all but a few had cleared out. Today, a few scattered foundations are all that remain of the "town."

The name Goldstone is memorialized in white rock on a hillside above one of the antenna sites today, almost Hollywood sign-style. But in 1958, when construction began on the Pioneer Deep Space Station Antenna, a 26-meter, polar-mounted antenna, Goldstone was deserted. That's precisely why the site was chosen for the communications complex, too. There was no interference from radio or television communications to worry about. There weren't even any humans around. It was sand and stars, burros and tortoises.

By December of 1958, the DSS-11 antenna had begun tracking Pioneer probes to the Moon. According to Goldstone's website, the DSS-11 antenna became the prototype for Deep Space Network antennas.

JPL Director Dr. William Pickering announced the Deep Space Network's establishment in 1963, and Goldstone immediately became as important to America's space exploration as any spacecraft or astronaut.

"Every time we've needed something for a spacecraft ... the Deep Space Network was there ready and waiting for us," said Jim Erickson, project manager for JPL's Mars Science Laboratory Project. "There hasn't been a situation in my whole career when the Deep Space Network wasn't there when we needed it."

Elachi, who besides being JPL's director also is a vice president at Caltech, said Pickering would indeed be surprised to know what the Deep Space Network has accomplished in the past 50 years.

"I came back from touring New Zealand two weeks ago and I was talking about him," Elachi said of Pickering. "I think he would be amazed and very proud of the accomplishments over 50 years.

"When we receive a signal from Voyager it was sent 16, 17 hours ago at the speed of light. Humans have been around thousands of years and it's amazing to think that our generation is the first to send something beyond our solar system."

None of that would be possible without the Deep Space Network.

According to Badri Younes, NASA's deputy associate administrator for Space Communications and Navigation and Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, the DSN's antennas support 26 U.S. space missions, in addition to foreign space missions.

"On a daily basis, the Deep Space Network supports up to 35 missions," Younes said. "We've come to the rescue of so many spacecraft in the past. We've never lost a mission. We've been in operation 50 years and had 50 years of success."

Technology drives that success. According to information provided by Goldstone, its 70-meter antenna, which is about the size of a 20-story building, can capture a spacecraft's 20-watt signal from the depths of space. That's less energy than emitted by a refrigerator light bulb.

"Imagine your source is millions of miles away!" Younes said. "Most (spacecraft) don't transmit (signals) more than 100 watts. A lot of engineering takes place. The amplifiers we have rely on super cool technology. As we go further (into space), a lot relies on the size of the antenna."

NASA will go further into space, too. Elachi said he believes Voyager, which recently left the solar system, could continue for 10 more years.

Goldstone will continue to evolve and improve, too.

"We are planning to add additional antennas," Elachi said. "Four 36-meter antennas, which will be the equivalent of a huge 70-meter antenna. We're planning to keep renovating.

"You can never tell how far the technology will take you. Ultimately we are looking at using some antennas to receive optical signals. In 10 to 15 years from now we will have radio as well as optical signals."

"We will have streaming video from the surface of Mars," Younes said. "Hopefully by 2025 we are going to have this capability."

Steve Hunt can be reached at 760-951-6270 or Follow him on Twitter at @stevehunteditor.


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Source: Desert Dispatch (Barstow, CA)

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