Goldstone isn’t exactly a household name. When you think of the U.S. space program, what comes to mind are Cape Canaveral or Houston. But Goldstone is far more important than the media ever give it credit.
One third of the Deep Space Network resides at Goldstone, way out there in the Mojave Desert in California. The other two thirds are in Madrid, Spain, and Canberra, Australia. The Deep Space Network is a series of giant radio dish antennas that provide the communications link with outer space missions. The locations are about 120 degrees apart, if you view their positions on Earth from one of the poles. And this means that at any given time one of the stations is in direct line with a spacecraft that’s out there.
The Voyager sound recordings, the first picture of Curiosity on Mars, the conversations between Houston and the astronauts on the ISS — they all come to us via the Deep Space Network.
Goldstone was the first of the three stations, and much of what was learned there was directly applied to the other locations, such as how far the dish antennas needed to be apart.
The antennas look impressive on any photograph. But to actually see them with your own eyes is nothing short of mindboggling. Earlier this month I attempted to take a picture of the giant 210 foot antenna — and discovered there was no room to back up far enough to get it into the photo!
There are a large number of dish antennas at Goldstone. Some of them are no longer used but still there — and in the hot desert sun things tend to stay around for a long time. All of them are named after the first mission they supported; so you might see the Gemini station, or Apollo, or Pioneer, but they never supported just one mission. Scheduling who gets what time on which antenna is a logistical nightmare. Of course manned missions and missions with emergencies or critical milestones, such as course changes, special encounters or landings always have priority. Some spacecraft have to be contacted at certain times for their regular downloads and uplinks. Some might be on the opposite side of the sun for some time and can’t call home at all, so when they come into view again they get first dibs.
The signal amplifier in the antenna has to be freakishly cold to ensure the cleanest signal possible — it is cooled down to about 4 degrees above absolute zero. Given the fact that outside temperatures regularly hit the triple digits, that’s a huge task. The computing power required is enormous, as is needed data storage capacity: there are rows upon rows of large computers crunching numbers. Highly trained operators monitor the antennas 24-7-365. According to one of them, a solid background in electronics is a must to work with these technological marvels. Not only do they have to make sure every system works (and there are backup systems for every backup system of any backup system), they also have to “drive” those gigantic things and make sure they’re pointing in exactly the right direction. For some far-out missions, that’s quite the task. Voyager, for example, is so far away that the radio signal that arrives on Earth has about one 20-billionth of the strength of the power of your wrist watch.
Long underground tunnels connect the antennas to the operations facilities, and there are direct lines from there going to JPL in Pasadena and to other mission control centers, and the temperature difference between the computer rooms, which must be kept cool because of the hard-working electronics, and the outside hits you like a speeding bus. Obviously it takes a special kind of person to work under the huge pressures of keeping the lines of communication open while often performing extremely tedious tasks.
But it’s not all tough geeks out there.
Glancing at a dry lake bed you may catch a glimpse of the Loch Ness Monster happily posing in the blazing sun, or you may spot a shark fin sticking out of the desert sand, with an appropriate warning sign next to it. And if you’re really lucky you spot a few wild burros (who apparently figured out that digging up the irrigation system at the security gate is the most convenient way to get a cool drink in the heat of the day), or even a desert tortoise.
Goldstone may not have the high recognition factor of Houston, but without this lynchpin of communication, space travel would be all but impossible.
Learn more about Goldstone at http://deepspace.jpl.nasa.gov/dsn/
Beate Czogalla is the Professor of Theater Design in the Department of Theatre and Dance at Georgia College & State University. She has had a lifelong interest in space exploration and has been a Solar System Ambassador for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory/ NASA for many years. She can be reached at email@example.com