NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN) is the giant planetary switchboard that helps dozens of distant spacecraft communicate with teams of engineers and scientists on Earth.
The network of antennas and satellite dishes relay messages from missions such as Voyager 1 and the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR). Voyager 1 was launched in 1977 and still sends signals back from interstellar space, approximately 22 billion kilometers (14 billion miles) away. DSCOVR takes full disk images of Earth 1.6 million kilometers (1 million miles) away.
On March 17, 2021, Landsat 8’s Operational Land Imager (OLI) acquired this natural-colored image of one of the communication centers in Robledo de Chavela, about 50 kilometers west of Madrid, Spain. The complex has several large radio antennas with satellite dishes that appear as white circles in the Landsat image. The location was chosen because it was equidistant from DSN stations in Goldstone, California and Canberra, Australia. Strategic placement allows for continuous communication with spacecraft as the Earth rotates.
NASA first established a DSN facility in Spain in 1964 when it began the Gemini and Mercury programs. The Madrid facility, like the other two DSN facilities, has at least six antennas.
The most powerful antenna at the Madrid facility is Deep Space Station 63. With a diameter of 70 meters (230 feet), it receives signals from missions as far away as interstellar space. In January 2021, engineers completed the installation of Deep Space Station 56, a 34-meter (112-foot) multipurpose antenna capable of communicating at multiple frequencies and with multiple spacecraft. Existing antennas are limited in the frequency bands they can receive and transmit, which often limits them to communicating only with specific spacecraft.
In addition to tracking and communicating with distant spacecraft, scientists use data from the DSN to study the shape and gravity field of the Earth, a discipline known as Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI) to track small changes in the earth’s crust such as the movement of tectonic plates.
Image from NASA’s Earth Observatory by Lauren Dauphin, using Landsat data from the US Geological Survey.