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A communication system is defined for any program, whether it’s on the planet Earth or even
beyond it, to the other planets and moon or to the far edges of solar system and across. The
communication system is defined by a set of commands and other information sent from Earth to
the spacecraft or satellite/probe, and to return scientific data from the spacecraft and satellites to
Earth. Without an effective and efficient communications system, a mission can never be
The quest for the knowledge of our universe is never-ending. To search for the extra-terrestrial
worlds or other habitable planets has led to many interplanetary space missions over last 4-5
decades. This information has led to many discoveries. We began to send satellites in Earth orbit
first in October 4, 1957. It can be said that it started with the start of Space Age itself. Sputnik 1,
which was launched by Soviet Union, communicated through the frequency range of 20.005 and
40.002 MHz. We had established communications above Earth, but now it was the time to go
further in Space, to reach where no one has reached before. Initially these were the radio satellites
used for communication. Once we had reached the Earth’s atmosphere, the next target was our
neighbor, our own Moon. The closest celestial neighbor we can go for. But it was not that easy,
without a proper communication system our satellite may be lost and whole mission would fail. A
stable space communication system was needed to develop at that time to increase the success of
mission and to develop the platform to go further in space, deep space. Earth-Moon-Earth (EME)
Communication – EME communication became a popular form of our latest space communication.
The concept of EME was simple: the moon was used as a passive reflector for two-way
communication between two locations on Earth. Path loss in free space is due to the spherical
expansion of a radio wave as it propagates in the space. An EME signal is attenuated as 1/d2 over
the distance it covers and again the same on the return trip. Thus, the overall for a net 1/d4 path
loss. These were the early challenges faced in space communication. To go further in space,
beyond the asteroid belt was not an easy task but full of challenges. Far space communication
would require new set of programs and technology to work in the first place. In the early 60’s plans
were made to go for gaseous giants and study the planet and their moon, to find resources or to
search for the habitat condition beyond our own planet Earth. We had entered a new era.
Far space communication or more precisely speaking Deep Space Communication, includes
communication with satellites and spacecrafts active in the outer space region and collecting radio
signals and data. The very first communication station was established at Holmdel, New Jersey
(USA) in the year 1957. The station included two antennas and a 30.5-meter-long balloon orbiting
around the Earth. Many such communication stations were built following years to come upon. It
was obvious for our communication with the spacecraft travelling in deep space.
Distance is the main problem in space communications, since the intensity of electromagnetic
radiation decreases according to 1/r2, that is why signals from far space probes/satellites are usually
very weak when they reach Earth. These signals must be strong enough such that it can be relayed
back to the Earth and simultaneously to be catched by the antenna on Earth. Apart from the
distance, time is also one of the major challenges in far space communications. Since,
electromagnetic radiations can not move faster than the speed of light, there is always a time lag
in the communication between the Earth and satellite located in deep space. This time lag makes
real time communication impossible. It takes hours for a signal from the outer planets to reach the
Earth. A very precise communication must be achieved for a stable trajectory of a satellite in far
space. The satellites are communicated through radio waves and they can be observed/reflected by
large objects such as moon or planets or in some case, even asteroids. To avoid a communication
lag with the Earth, spacecraft must have a free line of sight to the Earth since radio waves cannot
pass through large objects. Now assuming we have eliminated all above threats to our
communication with spacecraft, still we need enough number of antennas around the Earth to
observe the incoming signal, since the receiving antenna should be on the wrong side of the Earth.
However, by using several antennas in different places around the planet would solve this problem.
Then comes the role of atmosphere which becomes more important in case of signals coming far
from space. Since the signal must pass through the Earth’s atmosphere, there are some limitations
on which frequencies that could be used. For example, ionosphere is almost opaque to some of the
frequencies bands, so space communication mainly uses high frequency bands between 2GHz and
Commonly used frequency bands for space communications are:
S-band 1.55 – 5.2 GHz (2.3GHz)
X -band 5.2 – 10.9 GHz (8.4GHz)
Ku -band 12 – 8 GHz
Ka -band 20 – 40GHz (32GHz)
There are different functions of far space communication. It can be used to transmit telemetry data
from spacecraft and transmit commands to the spacecraft. It is used to gather science data while
controlling and monitoring the performance of the network. The space network is operated 24
hours a day, 365 days per year. The proficiency of the operations in the network is very high,
around 99.5%.
The principal challenge to far space network communications system is due to the enormous
distance to which any spacecraft travel. Let us take an example, two Voyager spacecraft which are
more than 15 billion kilometers away, about 100 astronomical units (AU; 1 AU is the average
distance between Earth and the Sun). Another important challenge for far space communication
systems is to maintain their basic structure for the long system lifetimes of planetary missions.
The Deep Space Network (DSN) consists of antennas at three different locations around the world.
These antennas form the ground network for deep space missions. The unique thing about this
network is that they are approximately 120 longitudes degrees apart on Earth and they provide
continuous coverage and tracking for deep space missions. Each complex includes one 70-meter
antenna and a few 34-meter antennas. These antennas can also be used in combination to ensure
better communication with satellites which are on distant planets. DSN was developed by Jet
Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and it has contributed to the development of exciting new missions
Radio frequency communication techniques are very important for an interplanetary mission. JPL
is developing new techniques for increasing the power and transfer rate between the far space and
Earth. The data rate can be increased by using a specific spectral band for communication while
power efficient technologies can reduce the amount of energy needed to transmit any given number
of bits. We can also improve the communication by improving the receivers of flight and ground.
JPL engineers have successfully increased the data rate delivery from planetary spacecraft by using
higher radio frequencies (X-band and Ka-band). But there are limitations on the rate we can
transmit data between the spacecraft and Earth.
We can transmit stronger signal to the receiver on Earth using even higher optical frequencies and
taking advantage of low beam divergence which can be achieved using lasers. Using lasers can
enable us for streaming high definition image and data communications over interplanetary
distances. It can increase the performance by a factor of 100 over the current situation. This
improvement would benefit planetary and other orbiters in communication system. Laser
communication (lasercom) could be very helpful for future missions to the Solar System or maybe
even in interstellar missions. Optical communication can provide mass, power and volume
allocation benefits over radio frequency (RF) system. It is also superior in bandwidth allocations.
But there are some challenges in optical communications too. There is a lack of data on the
operating lifetime of lasers in the space. It is required to detect extremely faint signals, during
daylight the presence of background noise poses a challenge to their performance.
Image compression system is used for the rovers and spacecraft to compress the data as much as
possible prior to transmission. It has been used in the Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers to return
the major portion of their image using lossless and lossy communication. The quality of these
images was excellent and was obtained with approximately with a 10:1 compression ratio.
The most important part of any far space communication is the spacecraft’s transponder. It is the
mission’s portal to the interplanetary network. It should be most reliable and should live long for
a good communication. Improving this technology would increase the rate of data supplied and
will improve precision in far space navigation for the future space missions to deep space.
But a question remains intact, how far we can communicate in space? The answer lies in the
sensitivity of the receiver, how sensitive it is to be able to receive very weak signals. The farthest
any manmade object has reached in space are the VOYAGER spacecrafts, Voyager1 and
Voyager2 which were launched in 1977 within a span of two weeks in late August and September.
Both spacecraft flew by Jupiter and Saturn. Voyager 1 is the longest operated spacecraft. It’s more
than 4 decades now and we can still communicate with the spacecraft using DSN. Voyager 1 is
also the farthest spacecraft from the Earth and to enter the interstellar medium. There are five
spacecrafts which has achieved the escape velocity required to leave the Solar System and to enter
the interstellar space. But each spacecraft can be communicated for a certain time and power is
degrading in these spacecrafts. The emitted signals are very weak, about 23 watts and by the time
these signals reach Earth, they are a fraction of a billionth of a watt. In few years we will lose all
communications with Voyagers and they would be on their way to interstellar space without any
control. However, these missions have taught us a lot and to prepare for the upcoming missions
and to travel even beyond this time.
The duty of the present is to work for the future. Going with this quote, NASA seeks to improve
communications performance 10 to 100 times over the current system. The purpose of the Deep
Space Optical Communications (DSOC) project, led by NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is to
develop laser communications to meet this goal, which will boost connectivity speeds for future
exploration of the solar system. Key DSOC technologies includes a low mass spacecraft; a high
efficiency flight laser transmitter, and a pair of high efficiency photon counting array for the flight
optical transceiver and the ground-based receiver. Future generations of Space Network satellites
will incorporate laser technologies developed in this decade.
1. The Space Review: thespacereview.com/article/3403/1
2. Deep Space Communications / Jet Propulsion Laboratory / NASA:

Source: File:Two solar-powered satellites communicating optically in space via lasers.svg -
Diagram of Voyager spacecraft: Different components used for space communication:
Trajectory of Voyager 1 and 2, along with some other spacecraft in far space.

This picture depicts how far we can communicate and how far we have gone. The saying holds
strong... “One day we will reach stars”