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Every once in a while, all structures require upgrades, especially those that ensure our communication with outer space. In March, NASA began such upgrades on the Deep Space Network, the agency's interplanetary switchboard that enables communications with our robotic spacecraft.
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One of the network's largest antennas – Deep Space Station 43 (DSS-43) in Canberra, Australia – recently received a new X-band frequency cone. Inside the cone are a powerful state-of-the-art transmitter system and highly sensitive receivers.
These will be used to send commands to spacecraft and receive telemetry and science data back from robotic missions exploring the solar system. The antenna is forty-eight years old and 70 meters (230 feet) wide.
Making the upgrades was no easy feat. Engineers used a giant crane to maneuver the 3-ton cone into the center of the massive dish after lifting it 20 stories from the ground. The antenna is also receiving upgrades to its water coolant system and its mechanical and electrical equipment.
After 40 years of use, some of the components being upgraded have become increasingly unreliable. The antenna has now been offline since early March 2020.
The upgrades are scheduled to be completed by January 2021, then the antenna will become operational again. The Deep Space Network is spread over three locations around the world – California, Spain, and Australia.
This allows for communication with spacecraft on the Moon and beyond at all times during Earth's rotation. However, DSS-43 is the sole antenna that can send commands to Voyager 2.
Other antennas can receive signals from Voyager 2, but DSS-43 is the only dish that can send commands to the spacecraft. Voyager 2 is more than 11 billion miles (18 billion kilometers) from Earth and therefore requires a powerful radio antenna to transmit commands. Voyager 2 was launched in 1977.