NASA celebrates two anniversaries this Christmas. In addition to the widely covered Apollo 8 Christmas broadcast 45 years ago, NASA’s Deep Space Network (DNS) is 50 years old this December 24th.
Stations at three points around the Earth keep Earthbound scientists perpetually in communication with probes and astronauts in space. These three points comprise the only truly global spacecraft communications network. From California, Madrid, and Canberra, multiple parabolic dish antennas can maintain constant view of any object more than 30 000 km from Earth.
The DNS supports, in addition to American craft, European, Japanese, and Indian craft. Creating a “synthetic telescope” by combining signals from other radio telescopes globally, astronomers can reach halfway through the universe.
NASA took over US Army bases in 1958 and were given responsibility for lunar and planetary exploration. NASA officially began the Deep Space Network in December 1963. The idea was to accommodate all deep space missions with one system.
The Soviets also had a Deep Space Network, started in 1959, which had 13 stations across Russia and Ukraine. China’s DNS system is planning to set up an additional station in South America. India and possibly Japan also have Deep Space Networks.
DNS currently supports the Spitzer Space Telescope, the Curiosity rover on Mars, the Cassini-Huygens explorer to Saturn (also observing Jupiter), and the two Voyager craft, now 10 billion miles from Earth in the Heliosheath, but which first visited the outer planets–the only space craft to have done so. The DNS can also detect the position and velocity and so protect the earth from near-Earth objects.
Current development in the DNS system includes upgrading from traditional radio wave technology to optical communications. Researchers look to a future when Earth has streaming HD video of humans walking on Mars and when another living planet is found in our universe.
The Moon, 385 000 km from Earth, was visited by Americans in 1969 on Apollo 11, an event broadcast live to Earth by means of the DNS system. However, 7 months earlier at Christmas time, Apollo 8 orbited the moon.
Apollo 8 was a rushed mission to orbit the moon–rushed out of pressure to beat the Soviets, who, as word had it, were planning an upcoming mission.
The craft orbited the moon 10 times, and on Christmas Eve the astronauts made a special TV broadcast to Earth, showing images of the moon and the sunrise over the moon’s horizon and reading a passage from Genesis from a piece of fireproof paper.
It was on this occasion that the famous “Earthrise” photos were taken, and the next month published by Time magazine, who awarded the astronauts Jim Lovell, William Anders and Frank Borman their “Person of the Year Award.”
As the crew concluded their Christmas Eve Broadcast, Borman, the skipper of the trip, concluded, “And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a merry Christmas, and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.”
This December 24 marks the 45th anniversary of the NASA flight and Christmas Eve broadcast.
By Day Blakely Donaldson