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 planet’s watery past.
“Once the storm abated, we started the process of trying to regain contact, and so far, not a peep or a beep.”
While there remains hope that Opportunity will call home again one day, NASA also lost two missions this year that won’t be recovered. The Kepler spacecraft, launched in March 2009, was an all-star for exoplanet discovery. Its mission was to discover planets outside our solar system, and it found more than 2,000 exoplanets orbiting around other stars. When Kepler began sending data back to the DSN, the news of new exoplanets was enough to knock you out of your seat. Thanks to Kepler, we now know that most stars have planets encircling them. Since there are hundreds of billions of stars in our galaxy alone, this discovery has fundamentally changed the world’s view of the universe. Of course, it also raises questions about the likelihood of life existing beyond our solar system.
Kepler operated for nine years before it ran out of fuel on October 30. Richard Stephenson, a longtime DSN operator at the Canberra station, was one of the operators who sent the command to shut down the spacecraft’s communications. “You can easily superimpose human feeling onto the spacecraft you support,” he says. “This is due mainly to the interface with the mission [team] itself. You pick up on their excitement, concerns, or sadness through the voices you hear. When the ‘goodnight’ command was sent to the Kepler spacecraft, I confirmed with the [team] when I saw the spacecraft transmitter switch off for the last time. You could hear their sadness, and I couldn’t help but feel sad as well.”
Also this year, the DSN lost contact with the Dawn mission, a space probe launched by NASA in September 2007 that is in orbit around the dwarf planet Ceres. Dawn was sent on a mission to look into the “dawn” of the solar system. It was the first spacecraft to orbit two planetary bodies, first visiting the asteroid Vesta in 2011 before arriving at Ceres in 2015. Vesta is one of the oldest asteroids ever discovered and is believed to be a time capsule of the early solar system. And while Ceres is a dwarf planet that resides in the asteroid belt, scientists believe it formed much farther out and later migrated in. After 11 successful years, Dawn also ran out of fuel. One day, it stopped calling home. “You feel sorry for the people who have endowed so much of their life in it,” Stephenson says. “For them, a chapter has just finished.”
Even with the loss of Kepler and Dawn and the silence from Opportunity, the DSN remains constantly busy. After all, it was the only network of dishes powerful enough to communicate with the stranded Apollo 13 astronauts, and it’s still the only way for spacecrafts that travel beyond the moon to talk to Earth. Suzy Dodd, director of the Interplanetary Network Directorate at JPL that manages the DSN, leads NASA’s ongoing Voyager mission. Twin intrepid spacecrafts were launched from Earth in 1977 on a mission to explore every single outer planet: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. “The connection between Voyager and the DSN is beautiful,” Dodd says. “It takes a lot of antennas to talk to Voyager, because it’s so far away, basically about four times as far as Neptune to us. Voyager 1’s signal is over 20 hours one way. You need a lot of antennas just to get a very faint signal.”
While DSN workers and space enthusiasts alike mourn the loss of the acclaimed missions, the sorrow must be short-lived. After all, there are new missions ahead for the DSN, including InSight, the newly minted Mars inhabitant. Scientists don’t know what Mars looks like under the surface, how large its core is, and what the planet is made of. InSight will spend two years trying to fill these gaps. According to Dodd, it’s a busy time of year for the DSN. On New Year’s Day, NASA’s New Horizons probe — which in 2015 became the first spacecraft to observe Pluto — is scheduled to fly past the distant kuiper belt object called MU 69, an expanse of ancient icy rock. DSN operators will ring in the new year at work.
“We kick off straightaway with getting to capture for the world the first data and close-up images of the most distant object yet to be directly explored by a spacecraft,” says Glen Nagle at Canberra. “That beats fireworks any day.”