See where NASA’s spacecraft phone home

Written by

NASA launched Voyager 1 into space in 1977 . It was an unmanned spacecraft with a mission to explore our solar system’s outer planets and, after that, keep on going.

Nearly 40 years later, and over 12 billion miles from Earth, Voyager 1 is now the most distant object ever created by humankind. But the spacecraft is still connected to our planet by a thin thread of weak radio signals it regularly sends back to this world.

Voyager 1
Launched in 1977, Voyager 1 is the first spacecraft to leave the solar system and reach interstellar space, the vast gulf between the stars. But the craft is still connected to Earth by weak radio signals it continues to send back to its home world. (Photo: Courtesy of NASA)

Those signals are received in California by enormous radio dishes at NASA’s Goldstone Communications Complex deep in the Mojave Desert.

“Within the United States, Goldstone is the only facility capable of communicating with our spacecraft that are essentially moon and beyond. When we get out there beyond Mars or the moon, this is it,” says Sonny Giroux, program manger for Goldstone.

For decades, the giant radio dishes at NASA’s Goldstone Communications Complex in the Mojave Desert have received data and images from unmanned spacecraft exploring the solar system. Along with facilities in Spain and Australia, it comprises the space agency’s Deep Space Network. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)

Goldstone is joined by facilities in Spain and Australia in making up NASA’s Deep Space Network, or DSN. It’s a communications system that receives data and images from unmanned spacecraft exploring our solar system and can send commands back to those machines. They range from Voyager 1, which has completed its primary mission, to the Martian rovers Curiosity and Opportunity, which continue to explore the surface of the Red Planet and send back an abundance of scientific information.

Going to Goldstone is itself kind of like visiting another world. Far from public roads and behind two security checkpoints, the facility covers over 50 square miles of rugged desert landscape, terrain that doesn’t look all that different from images of the Martian surface, images that are received at Goldstone.

Goldstone’s antennas are scattered across more than 50 square miles of rugged desert terrain. The location was selected because of its distance from big cities and other sources of radio interference. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)

Goldstone, compared with other NASA facilities, can also feel remote and way under the radar. Many people who live in nearby desert communities don’t even know Goldstone exists.

“Even within the high desert here, I was pretty surprised when I walked around and first came to Barstow and Victorville and mentioned Goldstone, and no one has a clue that we exist out here,” says Giroux.

But Goldstone has been in business for more than 50 years. It was founded when America’s space program was in its infancy and much of our solar system remained unexplored by the remarkable machines we’ve built and launched since.

NASA selected the Goldstone site for its remoteness. That made it an ideal place to receive and send signals from deep space without earthly radio interference.

“They wanted to be in a location where they could pick up these very, very low radio frequencies from outer space,” says Goldstone manager Don Westbrook. “And the thinking was all of the radio frequencies around large cities would be disruptive for that.”

About 140 people regularly work at Goldstone, with a lot of their activity focused on both tracking and communicating with far-flung spacecraft and servicing the huge radio dishes that rise dramatically from the desert landscape and are scattered across the Goldstone property.

Dave Allen, who is in charge of antennae maintenance at Goldstone, walked me up the four-story-tall base of the largest antennae here. Dubbed “Mars,” its dish is 230 feet across and covers more than an acre.

The road to “Mars,” which is the name given to the largest radio dish at Goldstone. It’s dish is 270 feet across and weighs 8 million pounds. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)

The radio dish, like others at Goldstone, is moved by motors in its base that allow it to target signal streams from particular spacecraft. In the case of “Mars” those motors move over 8 million pounds of steel.

Allen says servicing Goldstone’s radio antennas involves plenty of muscle and sweat, especially during the summer months, when temperatures at the desert facility can be punishing.

“We get a lot of days where we get 110 degrees. And we want to make sure everybody is hydrated and we take ice,” says Allen. “The metal gets very hot. You stand on that dish for half an hour, it will come through the soles of your feet very quickly.”

Daily management meeting at Goldstone to discuss the status of spacecraft sending signals to the facility and the condition of Goldstone’s antennas.  (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)

As NASA prepares for future ambitious space missions, including a possible manned mission to Mars, one challenge facing Goldstone is the age of the facility. Several of the radio dishes date back to the 1960s and despite their continued use are technological relics.

Goldstone’s “Mars” antenna, for instance, has been in service for nearly 50 years and is definitely showing signs of wear and tear, says Giroux.

“It’s still working well, but she is getting old and needs a lot of tender loving care,” says Giroux. “It was designed for 20 years. They did a wonderful job designing it, but sooner or later we’ll have to retire that antenna.”

Goldstone staffers vow that contact with distant spacecraft won’t be lost on their watch. That includes the now very distant Voyager 1. NASA believes the probe has enough power to keep sending signals back to Earth for 10 more years. After that, the antennas at Goldstone will receive only silence.

Goldstone stays in contact with more than 30 spacecraft in our solar system and beyond. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)