NASA Transforms Deep Space Communications

January 29, 2024

Sending communications across our galaxy is a difficult task that NASA is constantly working to improve. Thus, when the agency received a signal from the Psyche spacecraft 10 million miles away, this was a major cause for celebration as this could effectively transform the way that NASA and other space agencies communicate with spacecraft, marking a new and exciting era in galactic transmissions.

Communicating in Deep Space

NASA's Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC) system is a next-generation comms network that sends information by a near-infrared laser beam light instead of the traditional radio wave signaling of the past. DSOC is currently being used in a series of tests conducted by NASA to improve the speed and reliability of communications in deep space between spacecraft and ground stations. The NASA Psyche mission, which departed for space in October 2023 and is set to begin data collection in 2029, is the first instance of this optical laser communication technology being used. A few months later when the laser transceiver on Psyche made contact with a NASA beacon in California over 10 million miles away (more than 41 times the distance from the earth to the moon), this marked a successful “first light” trial of the equipment, indicating a bright future for the technology. Through the Psyche mission, NASA is hoping to demonstrate the full capabilities of this current technology, which is calibrated for 240 million miles of communication distance.

A New Era in Deep Space Communications

The difficulties associated with space communication are plentiful, and many factors need to be calculated when implementing a comms network system between spacecraft and ground stations. Factors include how far the signal can be transmitted, barriers or obstructions in space like debris, time lapses and transmission delays, light speed and distance, accuracy and duration, comms system updates, and more. When adding in laser beam technology that needs to align with a specific receiver across millions of miles, these calculations become more complicated as both the earth and the spacecraft are in continual motion.

Communication issues are not a new phenomenon and have occurred during several NASA missions in the recent past. In 2023, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab lost contact with the Voyager 2 over 12 billion miles away after scientists sent an incorrect command that knocked its antenna askew from the Earth’s ground signal. It took several months to reestablish this communication link.

In 2022, NASA’s CubeSat mission known as “CAPSTONE” lost communication with the Deep Space Network (DSN) radio antenna system when it escaped the Earth’s orbit while traveling to the moon. In 2020, another DSN issue was seen shortly after the launch of Perseverance, which experienced a lapse in communication when the network was unable to lock onto a data receiver signal. Adjustments to the ground station receivers were necessary to eventually restore communication.

The scope of the DSOC system’s success is put into perspective when it is likened to lining up a laser pointer with a coin a mile away – this is the kind of precision needed to make contact in space. And in doing so, the DSOC system could improve data collection up to 100 times, NASA says, stating that “achieving first light is one of many critical DSOC milestones in the coming months, paving the way toward higher-data-rate communications capable of sending scientific information, high-definition imagery, and streaming video in support of humanity’s next giant leap: sending humans to Mars.” This system’s success impacts more than just space communications, but the future of space exploration, marking a new era for the industry.

The Future of the Space Industry

As astronautical and space technology evolves, the need for talented engineers and scientists grows. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects significant employment growth in space engineering and related fields, with an 8% increase in the employment of physicists and astronomers and a 4% increase for atmospheric scientists expected from 2021 to 2031. NASA, on a yearly average, hires between 500 to 1100 new employees and is constantly seeking stand-out professionals with specialized, hands-on technical skills for the field.

Capitol Technology University has an established and longstanding collaboration with NASA, the MD Space Grant Consortium (MDSGC), and the Minor Planet Center (MPC) on several space projects, including balloon payload launches, CubeSat missions, near-earth object (NEO) data collection, satellite ground station projects, and more. As a Capitol Tech student in our Aviation and Astronautical Sciences program, you will have access to unique resources like working with our ALPHA Observatory, Space Flight Operations Training Center, as well as benefit from our collaborations with NASA, the U.S. Space Command, and the Royal Aeronautical Society (RAeS), to name just a few.

Email the Capitol Tech Admissions team at Capitol Tech to see how Capitol Tech can help propel your space career today!