NASA Making Big Upgrades To Their Big Dish DSS43

When it comes to antenna projects, we usually cover little ones here. From copper traces on a circuit board to hand-made units for ham radio. But every once in a while it’s fun to look at the opposite end of the spectrum, and anyone who craves such change of pace should check out DSS43’s upgrade currently underway.

Part of NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN) built to communicate with spacecraft that venture far beyond Earth, Deep Space Station 43 is a large dish antenna with a diameter of 70 meters and largest of the Canberra, Australia DSN complex. However, the raw reflective surface area is only as good as the radio equipment at its center, which are now outdated and thus focus of this round of upgrades.

The NASA page linked above offers a few pieces of fun trivia about DSS43 and its capabilities. If that whets an appetite for more, head over to Twitter for a huge treasure trove. Whoever is in charge of Canberra DSN’s Twitter account has an endless fountain of facts and very eager to share them in response to questions, usually tagged with #DSS43. Example: the weight of DSS43 is roughly 8.5 million kilograms, 4 million of which is moving structure. They also shared time lapse video clips of work in progress, one of which is embedded after the break.

Taking the uniquely capable DSS43 offline for upgrades does have some consequences, one of which is losing our ability to send commands to distant interplanetary probe Voyager 2. (Apparently smaller DSN dishes can be arrayed to receive data, but only DSS43 can send commands.) Such sacrifices are necessary as an investment for the future, with upgrade completion scheduled for January 2021. Just in time to help support Perseverance (formerly “Mars 2020”) rover‘s arrival in February and many more missions for years to come.

16 thoughts on “NASA Making Big Upgrades To Their Big Dish DSS43

      1. It is amazing when you get close to a dish this size. I grew up looking out my window at the 46m dish currently at Millstone Hill (MISA). When I was about 10 years old, decided to see it up close. It was a LONG day on mu bike in hilly terrain. Kept thinking ‘almost there’. Kept being wrong.

  1. Some of that equipment has been in service for 40 years. I’m not sure how long for the 20 kW S-band power amplifiers but they’re old. If it works, leave it alone. On the other hand, people are desperate to upgrade cell phones for a thousand bucks every time Apple announces some new toy. They have a trillion dollars of your money and you have Facebook.

    1. Scientific institutions (and I’ll assume, NASA too), don’t generally have much money, so if there’s any equipment that they can *possibly* reuse – they will.

    2. They would be more inclined to upgrade if they could get their equipment at a consumer level price. The simple fact that basically everything in the whole site is custom built is a testament to how much you gotta spend to get real about astronomy. What kills me is old dishes that were left over from weather or military use just rotting. If I could get myself a dish even a 1/4 the size of what’s featured here, I could do some cool science. Nothing novel, but for outreach it would be a boon.

      1. seriously??

        you only need a dish for SHF!!

        how many times can we all go “Wow!! 21cm hydrogen line! with an SDR?? Waaaaay cool”



        there is a whole spectrum below SHF, which is way more fun

        building a simple radiometer is not that hard

        a receiver for radio astronomy is everything you do NOT want in an SDR for comms

        there is a whole lot of things to look at below SHF!!

  2. As a child growing up in Canberra we would often make trips out to the tidbinbilla complex the whole complex always filled me with awe as you would come over a rise in the road on the way there and be treated by their majestic sight.

  3. My daughter and I do the routine yearly visit to NRAO in Greenbank, WV. She has been wanting to work there since she was a wee pip in elementary school. With the age of the infrastructure when these antenna’s were installed, it wold make sense to upgrade (with newer technologies) to get more out of those dishes. Being a HAM operator, it comes into play new modes, weird wavelengths and a good ear (and eye) to see what is out there. Long live “phone home” and other great improvements that can be done. 73 de KC8KVA

    1. Some of these older dishes are still running custom software on custom built computer packages. Upgrading to modern tech for SDR would give them new life but the inner workings are so mysterious and convoluted that it would take lots of time to patch in. They didn’t build them exclusively as frontend hardware that feeds a signal to a computer. The electronics are all throughout the system and would need to be upgraded, worked in, or completely reworked in order to get a useful signal to modern SDR hardware. Basically the hardware all talks to each other and you need a way to emulate this communication to move the dish, activate amplifiers, etc.

  4. I read once that back in the 1960s, with money pouring in for space, NASA/JPL had the good sense to use some of that funding to over-build their DSN, giving it far more capability than going to the moon required. The fact that this rebuild wasn’t need for over half-a-century hints at the good sense of their decision. Here’s a short but excellent documentary on Australia’s The Dish.

    The bit about being able to crank the huge dish manually is very interesting, as was its role in Apollo 13’s rescue.

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