The Long Goodbye
How NASA’s Deep Space Network said goodbye to three planet-hunting missions
On December 24, 1963, William Pickering, the director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, signed a letter officially creating the Deep Space Network (DSN). The NASA network is a series of large radio antennas that serve as the communication and navigation hub for all robotic spacecrafts that travel in deep space (anything from the moon and beyond).
In the 55 years since its initiation, the DSN has expanded and is now made up of three stations around the world: Goldstone, California; Madrid, Spain; and Canberra, Australia. Each station is home to one 70-meter antenna and three or four 34-meter antennas. These radio dishes are how NASA tracks and communicates with all of its robotic missions in space. (You can watch humans on Earth talking to spacecrafts in deep space at DSN Now.)
This year, the DSN witnessed several missions achieve impressive feats, including the most recent landing of the spacecraft InSight on Mars, where it will probe beneath the planet’s surface to learn more about Mars’ formation. The DSN also experienced three major spacecraft losses this year, and while those spacecrafts’ discoveries will be mined for years to come, their departures can feel grief-inducing for followers.
In 2018, an unexpectedly timed global dust storm enveloped the entirety of Mars, severing NASA’s connection to the solar-powered Opportunity Rover. “Once the storm abated, we started the process of trying to regain contact, and so far, not a peep or a beep,” says Glen Nagle, the outreach lead at the Canberra Deep Space Communication Center, who has worked at the DSN for 17 years. “We all feel for this rover. The anguish comes in empathy for the people whose careers are built around that rover.”
In 2004, Opportunity landed on Mars with its twin rover named Spirit. The rovers explored different regions of the planet and operated well beyond their planned 90-day missions. Opportunity, more formally known as MER-B (Mars Exploration Rover-B), spent the past 14 years on the planet. During that time, it discovered evidence of Mars’ history, including small mineral spheres that NASA calls “blueberries,” which are likely leftovers from the…