Super-cooled feeds for space antennas

Super-cooled feeds for space antennas

Technology News |
By Nick Flaherty

The European Space Agency (ESA) is upgrading its 35m deep space antennas with cryogenic cooling to boost the signal quality.

The antenna feed that connects the physical antenna to the electronic transmitter and receiver at ESA’s three 35-metre deep-space antennas is being cooled to -263°C. This minimises the effects of thermal noise, allowing weaker signals to be received. Below 10 K, impurities in the metals used in the electronics limit the benefits of further cooling.

These upgrades will increase the amount of data that can be downlinked from spacecraft by up to 40 percent, for example allowing more high-definition images of the Sun to be received from Solar Orbiter.

The cryo-cooled feeds are manufactured by Callisto Space in France which received funding from ESA during the five year development of the technology. Specific ultra-low noise semiconductor technology has been developed with university partners at Chalmers University in Sweden and ETH Zurich in Switzerland to achieve the performance.

“With these upgrades, ESA is pushing the limits of what’s technically possible and enabling scientists to explore new worlds and gather unprecedented amounts of data,” says Stéphane Halté, ESA ground station engineer in charge of the project together with Filippo Concaro.

The integration of the first new cryo-cooled antenna feed was completed in May 2021 at ESA’s Cebreros station in Spain. This improves the rate at which data can be processed in X-band frequencies by up to 40 percent.

ESA’s Malargüe station will receive the same X band feed upgrade in 2022 along with a new Ka band cryo-cooled feed, where the expected data rate increase will be as high as 80 percent. The antenna in New Norcia will receive the upgrade at a later date.

“The upgrades have come at just the right time,” says Andrea Accomazzo, Head of Solar System and Exploration Missions at ESA’s space operations centre in Darmstadt. “They give us the performance we need to ease the high demand on our tracking network and continue to provide the highest standard of data return for an increasing number of scientists.”

Canadian company Calian conducts the integration of the new technology into the antennas.

The technology was tested at NASA’s High Power Transmitter Test facility at Goldstone, California, at a power output of 30 kilowatts.

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