DSN Now

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If you are feeling a bit nerdy and what to feel like you are seeing really nerddom at work – I have a NASA website for you.  It’s a website you can access that may not look too interesting to begin with, but has become one of things I just like going on in the background to keep things in perspective.  The website is:

http://eyes.nasa.gov/dsn/dsn.html

It’s Called DSN Now.  DSN stands for Deep Space Network, and is exactly what the name suggests.  DSN is the main communication path between most of the objects exploring our universe beyond Earth’s Orbit.  We are talking those man made objects sent out to explore, like anything that is on, around, or on route to other planets in the solar system.  DSN is made up of a series of radio antennas (or in lay terms, big old satellite dishes) that are placed in three stations approximately 120° apart around the world in Gladstone (middle of nowhere) California; Madrid, Spain; and Canberra, Australia.  Each station has 4 or 5 dishes, most of which are 36 Meter (118 feet) and are  powerful enough to get data from as far away as Jupiter, and the big ones at 70 Meters (230 feet) are just monsters that can do way more than Jupiter.

The DSN has key functions with all those units out there.  First of all, they track them — make sure they are where they are supposed to be.  Then they get any data the probes are sending.  In return, they send back their own data for things like commands, trajectory changes, software updates, etc.  They do some of their own experimentation, for instance – in conjunction with the Jupiter bound JUNO probe, the communication comes with super accurate time stamps so that the effect of gravitational fields on radio waves can be measured.  For the most part … and this is the lay person description … they act as the guy who takes stuff from the space robots and gets it to the ground nerds.

DSN goes back to the earliest of early days of space exploration.  They were first built in 1958 to track Explorer 1, the first US Satellite – this before NASA existed.  Because Explorer 1 and DSN were both built by JPL … guess who still runs it (you bet … us guys!).  The 70 meter dishes were first built as 64 meter dishes, and were hastily done when the Mariner satellites were losing contact due to weak signals.  They were expanded to their current size because of those damn Voyager probes who don’t know when to quit … more on them later.

So why do I like DSN Now?  Well … it is a live status of what the DSN is currently doing.  If you are looking at the website, you will see a number of cartoon antenna.  Whether or not a wavy line is coming in or out tells you whether or not it is sending or receiving singles.  Not just that … its specific to who it is really talking to.  So as I type this, one of the Goldstone antenna is in direct contact with the Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE).  From this website, I can click on graphic of what ACE looks like.  Copy & Paste into Google, and I know ACE is out doing analysis on the Sun, including getting high resolution graphics of Solar Storms and radiation.  So it becomes this means to learn more what is going on out there.

Where I start to blow my mind some is looking at the ‘Spacecraft’ data that comes with the different data coming in and out.  Right now, the 70 meter in Canberra is working to get contact with Voyager 1.  That probe, launched in 1977, took flybys of Jupiter, Saturn, and Saturn’s moon of Titan in the 70s and early 80s.  Expected then to just shut up and go it’s merry way, it did everything but shut up.  Okay, the plan wasn’t to make it shut-up, but the point is that the probe’s generators will support communication and instrumentation powerful enough to still get signals back to the DSN.  Currently, Voyager 1 is about 2.1 Billion Kilometers away from Earth.  To put that in perspective, astronomers use the measurement AU for Astronomical Units — meaning 1 AU is equal to the distance from the Earth to the Sun.  That means, Voyager 1 is 137 AUs or the distance to go to the Sun nearly one hundred and forty times.  It is the furthermost man-made object from our planet.  The next furthest is it’s cousin Voyager 2, which we would have to go to Jupiter and back 5 times to cover that distance between those two (based on where Earth is).  This all makes Voyager 1 the loneliest thing we have ever created.

Except for the fact it routinely checks in.

That’s what I mean, there is still communication going on with these probes.  And watching the website shows it happening.  The single is weak, about that of a 90s internet dial-up.  But data still comes in, and data still goes out.  It takes awhile; the distance is so far that the signals the DSN is picking up now left Voyager 1 over 30 hours ago.  So he could have told us yesterday that he just saw an alien, and we won’t hear about it until tomorrow (and then, at America Online speeds).

But this is why DSN Now is so interesting to me.  It is like this quiet little signal that reminds you of the power we have to explore.  I can sit there with that screen up as I read some document or email, and with the gentle sounds of the office of AC units, computer servers, and keyboards, I can watch the steady stream of data crossing over the vast emptiness of space allowing us to get that little bit closer to knowing more of the world beyond our gravity.  It’s a simple, beautiful, and poetic symbol of how big space is – and how it can be at times so small too.

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