What are the Different Types of Antennas used in Deep Space Network?

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Dec 18, 2023

Antenna arraying is a technique that combines signals from multiple antennas and transforms them into a cohesive unit, significantly enhancing the reception of weak signals. This technique enhances the reception of weak signals in deep space communications, providing higher data rates and increased sensitivity. Introduced in the early 1970s, antenna arraying initially experimented with a prototype system for Voyager encounters in 1979. The DSN progressively adopted arrayed configurations, combining signals from multiple antennas for encounters such as Voyager's Saturn rendezvous in 1980 and 1981. The Galileo mission to Jupiter in 1996 and 1997 marked a triumph for arraying, significantly increasing scientific data return, contributing to Galileo's extended and successful mission of over a dozen years of observations of Jupiter and its moons.

70-meter Antenna: Power and Precision

Each Deep Space Network (DSN) site boasts a colossal 230-foot (70-meter) diameter antenna, recognized as the largest and most sensitive within the DSN array. These remarkable antennas are engineered to track spacecraft journeying tens of billions of miles from Earth. Weighing nearly 2,970 U.S. tons (2.7 million kilograms), these colossal dishes maintain a surface precision within half an inch (one centimeter) across their expansive 41,400-square-foot (3,850-square-meter) area. This meticulous precision is vital, as even minor deformations could disrupt the antenna's critical operations.

To support the immense weight, a hydrostatic bearing assembly utilizes three pads gliding around a substantial steel ring on a paper-thin film of oil. The initial 70-meter antenna, known as the Mars antenna in Goldstone, became operational in 1966, initially featuring a 210-foot-wide (64-meter) dish. In 1988, an upgrade expanded its diameter to 70 meters, enhancing its capability to track NASA's Voyager 2 spacecraft during its Neptune encounter.

Officially designated Deep Space Station 14 (DSS 14), the Mars antenna earned its name from its inaugural task: tracking the Mariner 4 spacecraft after its historic Mars flyby in 1965. This iconic antenna has played a pivotal role in supporting missions like Pioneer, Cassini, and the Mars Exploration Rovers, transmitting Neil Armstrong's historic message from Apollo 11, and contributing to radar imaging of planets, asteroids, and comets.

34-meter Antenna: Innovative Design for Enhanced Efficiency

These 112-foot (34-meter) antennas come in two types, with the beam waveguide version featuring precision radio frequency mirrors for improved signal reflection. The beam waveguide variant incorporates five precision radio frequency mirrors reflecting signals along a tube to a subterranean room. This design choice allows sensitive electronics to be housed in a climate-controlled room beneath the antenna dish, simplifying maintenance and adaptation to emerging technologies.

26-meter Antenna: Tracking Earth's Orbiters

Each DSN complex houses one 85-foot (26-meter) diameter antenna primarily utilized for tracking Earth-orbiting spacecraft operating between 100 and 620 miles (160 and 1,000 kilometers) above Earth. Equipped with an X-Y mount, these antennas can point low on the horizon, rapidly capturing fast-moving Earth orbiters as they come into view. Originally constructed to support Apollo missions, these antennas were decommissioned in August 2009.

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