Two major NASA missions launched in the past year have exposed the weaknesses of communications in space.
NASA communicates with all of its distant spacecraft – from Orion capsule to me James Webb Space Telescope (Webb or JWST) to Voyager 1 – by the Deep Space Network, an array of 14 antennas located at three locations in California, Spain and Australia. But the network is busy, and it ensures that every task after that a land Orbiting having the communications time it needs can be tricky, which is a problem it faces Artemis 1 The task worsened.
“We were told over the summer that when the Artemis space mission launched, Artemis was going to take the Deep Space Network outright because they needed to track the spaceship,” the Center for Astrophysics and JWST Users Committee Chairman stated at a meeting of the US National Academies of Sciences Council for Physics and Astronomy on Wednesday ( November 30).
The time came on November 16, when NASA launched Artemis 1. Test flight to begin the agency’s return to the Moon The 25-day mission has sent an uncrewed Orion capsule into lunar orbit and is scheduled to lift off to Earth on December 11.
During Orion’s flight and beyond low-Earth orbit, it’s in near-constant contact with the Deep Space Network—a major drain that has put the James Webb Space Telescope and other missions in a back seat. NASA has learned that Artemis may be straining the Deep Space Network. The agency arranged upgrades to some of the antennas and added two new antennas in the area January 2021 And the March 2022 In preparation.
But communication time is still scarce. Lopez-Morales said she was told before Artemis 1’s launch: “It could take up to 80 hours — that’s about three and a half days — of not connecting to JWST at all.”
JWST scientists usually send orders to the $10 billion observatory about once a week, she told the board, so infrequent calls don’t affect the observatory getting its instructions. But for astronomers to enjoy Webb’s power, the telescope needs to be able to send its data home—and to do so before the computer fills up.
“The big problem is that you can’t download data for a long time,” said López-Morales.
For Artemis 1, she said, the Space Telescope Science Institute in Maryland, which manages both JWST and Hubble Space Telescope, reorganized the JWST monitoring schedule. The scientists prioritized shorter observations, which create smaller sets of data, to reduce the chances of the telescope’s computer filling up before the Deep Space Network can accept the next batch of data.
But as NASA plans additional Artemis launches—and these with humans on board—in 2024 and beyond, scientists want a different solution to the communications crisis.
“We’re very much asking NASA to come up with a plan to somehow get more access to the antennas,” Lopez-Morales said.
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