February 8, 2024
NASA’s New Experimental Antenna Tracks Deep Space Laser
Capable of receiving both radio frequency and optical signals, the DSN’s hybrid antenna has tracked and decoded the downlink laser from DSOC, aboard NASA’s Psyche mission.
An experimental antenna has received both radio frequency and near-infrared laser signals from NASA’s Psyche spacecraft as it travels through deep space. This shows it’s possible for the giant dish antennas of NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN), which communicate with spacecraft via radio waves, to be retrofitted 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 from NASA’s Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC) technology demonstration since November 2023. The tech demo’s flight laser transceiver is riding with the agency’s Psyche spacecraft, which launched on Oct. 13, 2023.
The hybrid antenna is located at the DSN’s Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex, near Barstow, California, and isn’t part of the DSOC experiment. The DSN, DSOC, and Psyche are managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.
“Our hybrid antenna has been able to successfully and reliably lock onto and track the DSOC downlink since shortly after the tech demo launched,” said Amy Smith, DSN deputy manager at JPL. “It also received Psyche’s radio frequency signal, so we have demonstrated synchronous radio and optical frequency deep space communications for the first time.”
In late 2023, the hybrid antenna downlinked data from 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 Jan. 1, 2024, the antenna downlinked a team photograph that had been uploaded to DSOC before Psyche’s launch.