In a first, this proof of concept received both radio frequency and laser signals from deep space at the same time
An experimental antenna has received both radio frequency and near-infrared laser signals from NASA’s Psyche spacecraft as it travels through deep space. This shows it’s possible for the giant dish antennas of NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN), which communicate with spacecraft via radio waves, to be retrofitted for optical, or laser, communications.
By packing more data into transmissions, optical communication will enable new space exploration capabilities while supporting the DSN as demand on the network grows.
The 34-meter (112-foot) radio-frequency-optical-hybrid antenna, called Deep Space Station 13, has tracked the downlink laser from NASA’s Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC) technology demonstration since November 2023. The tech demo’s flight laser transceiver is riding with the agency’s Psyche spacecraft, which launched on Oct. 13, 2023.
The hybrid antenna is located at the DSN’s Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex, near Barstow, California, and isn’t part of the DSOC experiment. The DSN, DSOC, and Psyche are managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.
“Our hybrid antenna has been able to successfully and reliably lock onto and track the DSOC downlink since shortly after the tech demo launched,” said Amy Smith, DSN deputy manager at JPL. “It also received Psyche’s radio frequency signal, so we have demonstrated synchronous radio and optical frequency deep space communications for the first time.”
Two for One
In order to detect the laser’s photons (quantum particles of light), seven ultra-precise segmented mirrors were attached to the inside of the hybrid antenna’s curved surface. Resembling the hexagonal mirrors of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, these segments mimic the light-collecting aperture of a 3.3-foot (1-meter) aperture telescope. As the laser photons arrive at the antenna, each mirror reflects the photons and precisely redirects them into a high-exposure camera attached to the antenna’s subreflector suspended above the center of the dish.
The laser signal collected by the camera is then transmitted through optical fiber that feeds into a cryogenically cooled semiconducting nanowire single photon detector. Designed and built by JPL’s Microdevices Laboratory, the detector is identical to the one used at Caltech’s Palomar Observatory, in San Diego County, California, which acts as DSOC’s downlink ground station.
“It’s a high-tolerance optical system built on a 34-meter flexible structure,” said Barzia Tehrani, communications ground systems deputy manager and delivery manager for the hybrid antenna at JPL. “We use a system of mirrors, precise sensors, and cameras to actively align and direct laser from deep space into a fiber reaching the detector.”