Deep space communications goes commercial
Commercial spaceflight may bring to mind flashy images of dramatic rocket launches and sleek space capsules, but it also means the infrastructure to support such endeavors. Case in point is a co-operative project between Britain and the European Space Agency to establish the world's first commercial deep-space tracking and communications station in Goonhilly, Cornwall. Using a repurposed 32-m (105-ft) dish built in 1985, it will be able to communicate with spacecraft millions of miles away.
We're seeing a renaissance of space flight with multiple missions to Mars as well as ones to intercept asteroids, comets, and even venturing out into the Kuiper Belt. The trouble is that all these spacecraft require ground stations back on Earth to track and communicate with these far-flung missions and many of these stations, like those of NASA's Deep Space Network, were built in the days of the Space Race in the 1960s.
And while new networks, including ESA's three deep-space dishes in Australia, Spain and Argentina, have alleviated some of the data-link congestion, future missions including private companies seeking to mine the asteroids or colonize the Moon or Mars threaten to quickly overwhelm the system. This is especially true as the Europeans ready to launch their BepiColombo mission to Mercury, along with the Solar Orbiter, Euclid, and Cheops probes.
"The amount of science data flowing in from ESA's current missions, not to mention from future missions with improved instruments, is growing strongly," says ESA's Pier Bargellini, responsible for network operations. By the middle of the next decade, ESA's deep-space communication needs for supporting today's missions, like ExoMars, and upcoming spacecraft, like Juice, is expected to exceed our present capacity by around half. We are considering urgently how to bridge this gap."
The first step in solving this problem is being taken at the famous Goonhilly Earth Station. As Britain's primary telecommunications ground station, Goonhilly was the site of the world's first transatlantic television transmission on July 11, 1962 when a live television signal was transmitted between the United States and Europe via the Telstar satellite.
Today, Goonhilly is a sprawling complex of 140 acres (57 hectares) with 60 radio dishes carrying radio, television, telephone, and internet traffic. One of these dishes, GHY-6, is being upgraded over the next two years to provide tracking and communication links with commercial deep-space missions as part of a €9.5 million (US$12 million) investment from the Cornwall & Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership, which will be later supplemented by ESA. The first test links will be with ESA mission, including Mars Express.
"Once the station upgrade work is complete, in about 24 months, Goonhilly will be able to complement ESA's own stations, and provide deep-space tracking for the Agency's missions as well as those of other space agencies or from private space start-ups aiming to exploit the Moon or mine asteroids," says Klaus-Jürgen Schulz, who is responsible of ESA ground station engineering.