Two major NASA missions launched in the past year have exposed a communications gap in space.
NASA communicates with all its distant spacecraft – from Orion capsule to James Webb Space Telescope (Webb or JWST) to Voyager 1 — via the Deep Space Network, a collection of 14 antennas located at three locations in California, Spain and Australia. But the grid is busy and ensures that every mission goes over The Earth orbit has the communication time it needs can be difficult, a problem that Artemis 1 the mission escalated.
“We were told over the summer that when the Artemis space mission launches, the Deep Space Network will be fully occupied by Artemis because they have to track the spacecraft,” Mercedes Lopez-Morales, an astrophysicist at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and the chair of the Committee on users of JWST told a meeting of the Board on Physics and Astronomy of the US National Academies of Sciences on Wednesday (Nov. 30).
The time came in November. 16 when NASA launches Artemis 1. A test flight to begin the agency’s return to the moon, the 25-day mission sent an uncrewed Orion capsule into lunar orbit and is scheduled to land on Earth in December. 11.
While Orion is in flight and beyond low-Earth orbit, it is in near-constant contact with the Deep Space Network — a major leak that has put the James Webb Space Telescope and other missions on the backseat. NASA knew that Artemis would overload the Deep Space Network; the agency arranged for upgrades to some antennas and added two new ones January 2021 and March 2022 in preparation
But the communication time is still short. “It could take up to 80 hours — that’s about three and a half days — without any contact with JWST,” Lopez-Morales said she was told before Artemis 1 launched.
JWST scientists typically send commands to the $10 billion observatory about once a week, she told the board, so the infrequent communications don’t affect receiving instructions from the observatory. But for astronomers to really enjoy Webb’s power, the telescope must be able to beam its data — and do so before its computer fills up.
“The big problem is that you can’t download data for that long,” Lopez-Morales said.
For Artemis 1, she said, the Maryland Space Telescope Science Institute, which operates both JWST and Hubble Space Telescope, changed the JWST observing schedule. The scientists prioritized shorter observations, which produce smaller packets of data, to reduce the chances of the telescope’s computer filling up before the Deep Space Network can receive the next batch of data.
But as NASA plans additional Artemis launches — and those with humans aboard — in 2024 and beyond, scientists want a different solution to the communications logjam.
“We’re desperately asking NASA to come up with a plan to somehow have more access to antennas,” Lopez-Morales said.