THE LAUNCH PAD NEWS

America

Space Image

NASA Deep Space Network Critically Overworked & Underfunded

NASA's Deep Space Network (DSN) is a critical system that allows communication with spacecraft exploring our solar system and the cosmos,but it is facing an unprecedented strain due to a perfect storm of increased demand and diminishing financial resources. 

SUMMARY
  • More details coming soon...
TOPICS
ASK A QUESTION
JOURNALISTS
Zac Aubert

Zac Aubert

Wed Aug 30 2023Written by Zac Aubert

NASA's Deep Space Network (DSN) is a critical system that allows communication with spacecraft exploring our solar system and the cosmos,but it is facing an unprecedented strain due to a perfect storm of increased demand and diminishing financial resources. 

The DSN comprises a network of antennas spread across strategic locations in Australia, California, and Spain. 

The DSN serves as the backbone for communications with space probes and craft beyond Earth's orbit. However, the network is being used like never before, with the Artemis 1 mission casting a harsh spotlight on the challenges that lie ahead.

The fragility and limitations of the DSN infrastructure where extremly noticable during NASA's Artemis 1 mission. as the mission required the allocation of a substantial chunk of DSN resources. This was primarily due to the Artemis 1 launch delays and the subsequent challenges of accommodating its communication needs.

During a recent session of the NASA Advisory Council's Science Committee on August 29, Suzanne Dodd, the Director of the Interplanetary Network Directorate at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, expressed her concerns about the situation; highlighting how the Artemis missions tend to take precedence, leading to significant disruptions in the scheduling of other important scientific missions that also rely on the DSN.

During the Artemis 1 mission, the Orion spacecraft itself required a staggering 903 hours of DSN time. Adding to this, eight secondary cubesat payloads consumed an additional 871 hours. This massive allocation of resources for Artemis 1 translated into a loss of 1,585 hours for other scientific missions, including the time-sensitive James Webb Space Telescope, which lost 185 hours. As DSN was bening used for the Artemis 1 mission, crucial maintenance on the DSN was also deferred.

An element of particular concern, is the extensive time allotted to cubesats, often for "search and rescue" operations after encountering technical issues. Many have epressed their reservations about this practice, suggesting that such efforts might not be the most prudent allocation of DSN resources and that NASA should reconside the inclusion of cubesats on future Artemis missions to prevent the network's strain from further exacerbating.

The Deep Space Network is not only facing the challenge of the incredible surge in demand from from both commercial and government missions but is also facing a fiscial challenge. The DSN's workload is nearly doubling, placing immense stress on an already strained infrastructure.Adding to these challenges is the budgetary crunch that NASA's DSN program is grappling with. Over the years, the network's annual budget has dwindled from $250 million in 2010 to $200 million today. This financial squeeze is projected to persist through the end of the decade, casting a long shadow over the DSN's capabilities.

The situation has been flagged in multiple reports in the past, including a recent audit from NASA’s Office of Inspector General. This audit stressed that the DSN is already overwhelmed and projected to face increasing pressure due to the growing number of deep space missions. Efforts to enhance the DSN's capabilities with new antennas have faced delays and budgetary overruns.

The Network Services Division of NASA’s Space Communications and Navigation program has outlined a four-point plan to address the mounting strain on the DSN. This plan includes upgrading DSN antennas, introducing a new set of 18-meter antennas called LEGS dedicated to lunar exploration services, establishing lunar communication and navigation relay services, and fostering international partnerships.

Credit: NASA

However even with these measures, the network's challenges won't be fully resolved.

Sandra Cauffman, Deputy Director of NASA’s Astrophysics Division, has underscored the urgency of the situation. Despite planned upgrades like the LEGS network, Cauffman stated that the DSN's aging infrastructure is a pressing concern. The growing strain on the network has prompted committee members to take action, with discussions about potential recommendations to address the crisis and even considering elevating the issue to the National Space Council.

As the DSN navigates these complex challenges, the debate surrounding its fate is gaining momentum and the path forward remains uncertain.