Science

This Is The Centre Of The Universe: NASA's Deep-Space Command Central


Through technology, we’ve developed the ability to reach out into the distant corners of the universe. Rovers, orbiters and deep-space probes. But regardless of how far away from us they extend, they all reach from a single point of origin: Earth.

Or, to be even more specific, they all extend out from this one room in Pasadena, California.

The Space Flight Operations Facility at NASA JPL controls the Deep Space Network — a collection of the world’s the most insanely powerful antennae which monitors and tracks all of our spacecraft that travel beyond Low-Earth Orbit. That includes rovers, orbiters, probes and deep-space telescopes — the stuff that goes way out there. Satellites, shuttles and the ISS stay within a few hundred kilometres of the earth, so they can communicate directly with Houston or whoever through smaller antennae. Every bit of data that comes from something travelling beyond our little blue comfort zone has to go through JPL and their Deep Space Network. Without them, we would be effectively cut off from interplanetary space.

This is how it works. A ship is launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Whoever built the launch vehicle (the rocket) is in charge of the whole launch process and JPL is only there to monitor the instruments on board (“How is the rover holding up during takeoff?”). Once the ship separates from the launch vehicle, controls are handed off to JPL, and it’s all them from then until the end of the mission.

JPL handles both the navigational data and the science data via the Deep Space Network (or DSN). In other words, they are in charge of getting the Mars Science Laboratory (“Curiosity”) to Mars safely, then once it’s landed they’ll be driving it, and all of the images and data it collects will be sent back through them.

The positioning of the Deep Space Network’s three gigantic antennae (one in California, one in Spain and one in Australia) ensure that no matter which way the earth is rotated, we can always get data to and from our various flying spacecraft. There are currently 22 craft that are monitored from JPL. Some only come online for an hour at a time, and some are on for 10 hours. It all depends on where they are and what they’re doing. The Voyager 1 spacecraft, which was launched in the 1977 is the farthest man-made object from earth. It’s currently about 17 billion kilometres from Earth, in the Heliosheath (outer-most layer of the heliopause). How does something that’s 30-years-old and that far away (more than 100x the distance from the Earth to the sun) get a signal back to earth? Well, take a look at the size of the building underneath that satellite antenna and you’ll start to get an idea of scale. That monster dish is 70m in diameter. Image: NASA/JPL

Even a giganto antenna like that needs help, though. As Voyager got further and further away, its signal got weaker and weaker. So each of the three DSN complexes have been outfitted with at least three additional antennae. The supplementary antennae range between 25 and 35 metres in diameter, and together they can significantly boost reception. All DSN complexes then feed the data back JPL via a world-wide communications network. Sometimes the data is immediately farmed out to another NASA centre or a university, but it always comes through JPL first.

MSL had launched just 17 days before our visit, and we happened to be there when they were making their first course-correction. JPL is tracking flight data as it goes, and along the way navigators will make many tiny turns to keep it on track. Once a spacecraft like MSL is on its way toward Mars it has a significant amount of inertia and it’s heading almost exactly in the right direction (hopefully). This means that it needs only the smallest of adjustments to course-correct. To that end, the ship is equipped with very small thrusters that release a tiny blasts. These little impulses are all it takes. Around JPL they’re known as “mouse-fart motors”. Yes, even rocket scientists enjoy a good fart-joke every now and then (and a “probe to Uranus” joke, too. Seriously).

Standing in the Space Flight Operations Facility, it looks just like the mission control room you’ve seen in every space movie ever. But it’s not. Space movies are almost always about manned missions to space, and those generally go through NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston (as in, “Houston, we have a problem”). That’s the past and the present, but it’s not the future. We won’t always stay so close to home. A manned mission to Mars won’t be possible without the Deep Space Network, which means you’re going to be seeing a whole lot more of this room in the decades to come.

And you’ll definitely be seeing it this August when MSL lands on Mars. What I wouldn’t give to be a fly on the wall when that happens.

Huge thanks to Jim McClure, Chris Hames and everybody else at the SFOF for their time.

Space Camp is all about the under-explored side of NASA. From robotics to medicine to deep-space telescopes to art. For these couple of weeks we’ll be coming at you direct from NASA JPL and NASA Ames, shedding a light on this amazing world. You can follow the whole series here.

Video shot by Judd Frazier, edited by Woody Jang.

Special thanks to Mark Rober, Jessica Culler, Dan Goods, Val Bunnell and everybody at NASA JPL and NASA Ames for making this happen. The list of thank yous would take up pages, but for giving us access, and for being so generous with their time, we are extremely grateful to everyone there.

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