70-meter Antenna at Goldstone DSCC
The immense 70-meter antenna at NASA’s Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex in California. A small house would easily fit inside the dish. At this moment in October, 2012 the antenna was communicating with the STEREO B probe in deep space. Photo: Bill Dunford

On a remote military base in the desert, the United States government is communicating with outer space.

It’s happening deep in California’s Mojave Desert, tucked well out of sight of bleary-eyed Los Angelinos taking I-15 home after a weekend in Las Vegas, the hikers sweating in Death Valley, the freight trains rattling through Barstow.

None of this is a secret. It’s all taking place on a section of Ft. Irwin, and if you make arrangements in advance you can even visit—though the friendly soldiers with the large sidearms will need to see your photo ID before you enter the base.

Mojave Desert, California
The Mojave Desert near Barstow, California. Photo: Bill Dunford

The place really is remote. As the locals will warn you, the stark, arid hills and dry washes are home to scorpions and rattlers, along with wanderers that are easier to spot, like the herds of wild burros whose ancestors worked in the old mining camps. And don’t drink the water.

The isolation serves a purpose. It’s all about finding a quiet place, quiet enough to hear the sky. These ridges make a home relatively free of radio interference for NASA’s Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex, part of the planet-wide Deep Space Network (DSN). This spot is one of only a handful of places on Earth where we can talk to the spacecraft that have flown beyond low Earth orbit—often way beyond. Goldstone and its counterpart sites in Spain and Australia are online 24 hours, in daily contact with missions at Mars, Saturn and even the dark reaches beyond the edge of the Solar System. (See some of the missions that Goldstone tracks, and learn more about them.)

three antennas
Goldstone’s giant ears to the sky. 34-meter waveguide antennas at Apollo Station. Photo: Bill Dunford

The antennas at Goldstone receive the signals from these spacecraft, uplink commands to them, and help them navigate among the planets. They even take science observations of their own from the ground by, for example, blasting distant asteroids with bursts of radar in order to image their shapes. The teams at Goldstone then pass the data on to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the European Space Agency, or wherever the people who fly the missions are working.

All of this is even harder than it sounds. Consider this: in order to conserve precious weight, the communication systems on interplanetary probes transmit signals at very low power, typically around 20 watts. This is roughly the amount of power it takes to light a refrigerator light bulb. The farther away from Earth that a spacecraft travels, the weaker its signal. And these ships are at Mars, the asteroid belt, even speeding toward the cold, dark orbit of Pluto. When it reaches a DSN antenna the transmission can be one billionth of one billionth of one watt, a billion times weaker than the power of a wristwatch battery.

In conversation with the sky. Photo: Bill Dunford

To listen to these whispers, engineers have created hardware that can take its rightful place among the most amazing devices ever created. The antennas at Goldstone reach several stories into the sky and their dishes range in size from 26 meters to 70 meters across. But they are a far cry from static pieces of metal. Despite their massive size, they are complex and precision-engineered machines with the ability to point at and lock onto a patch of sky no bigger than what you would see looking through a straw. Shielded underground beneath each dish is a maze of circuitry and machinery humming so loudly it’s difficult to hold a conversation, including fantastically sensitive low-noise amplifiers that are cryogenically cooled with liquid helium to near absolute zero.

The information received is transferred via land lines and satellites to the Deep Space Operations Control Center at JPL, where the raw data is processed into usable products, like pictures of a Martian landscape or radar maps of lakes on Titan.

In October, I had the privilege of joining other space bloggers at a social media event hosted by NASA at Goldstone. We were treated to a behind-the-scenes tour of the complex, and heard first-hand from the teams that run it, agency brass responsible for communication in space, and even an engineer from one of the deep space missions now underway.

Some highlights:

  • We visited a signal processing center reminiscent of an iconic mission control center, only the flights being tracked here were all being carried out by robots. We saw an engineer sitting at a console with a bank of large monitors, poring over a stream of numbers—which may not sound exciting until you realize that she was receiving data at that moment from a rover on the surface of Mars. Several other missions across the Solar System were transmitting at the same moment. We were there at the interplanetary switchboard.
  • We heard from NASA officials who outlined future plans for the Deep Space Network, including the ability to use optical signals and other technology that will someday allow for live video from other planets, and delay-tolerant networking to extend Internet-like networks to the moon, Mars and beyond. An early test of these new systems will be included on a mission next year.
  • Goldstone engineers walked us through some of the staggering technical challenges of building and maintaining antennas the size of buildings. To get the whole story of how one antenna underwent a high-pressure repair, see this video or check out National Geographic’s The World’s Toughest Fixes season 4, “Deep Space Antenna”.
  • My favorite part was hearing Mars Curiosity rover flight systems engineer Ann Devereaux regale us with the tale of the thrilling landing we all saw in August. Here’s the thing: it wasn’t luck; it was engineering. In her presentation, she explained how the rover calls home using the radios she helped design.

Thanks to videographer and fellow NASA Socialista Jim Greenleaf, you can see many of the day’s events.

Following are some more pictures from Goldstone, and ways to find out more.

You may also be interested to know what it was like to witness the launch of one of these deep space missions.

Meet the Press: NASA’s Badri Younes, who runs the agency’s space communication networks, takes questions from social media writers and traditional press at Goldstone’s Echo Station. Photo: Bill Dunford
DSS-14 at Mars Station, the 70-meter antenna used for tracking the most distant spacecraft and even for imaging asteroids with radar. You really have to stand there to appreciate its scale—the bus would easily fit inside the dish. Notice how the sunlight is focused on the reflector at the tip of the antenna, just like the invisible radio waves from the distant spacecraft it was talking with at the moment. Photo: Bill Dunford
into the machine
Welcome to the machine. Sadly, no photography was allowed inside, but I assure you it was as cool as you might hope. Red lights flashed to indicate that an active transmission was taking place as the antenna linked with one of the twin GRAIL probes in lunar orbit. There was an impressive array of circuitry, along with plumbing for chilling key components down to near absolute zero. A device with a display like an oscilloscope glowed with a bright curve that indicated a strong signal coming from the moon. Photo: Bill Dunford
JPL’s Marie Massey gives a little history lesson. Goldstone has been operational for more than half a century. From the moon landings, to Voyager reaching the edge of the solar system, to the Curiosity landing on Mars this year, Goldstone has been the comms link for all of them. Photo: Bill Dunford
Photo: Bill Dunford
Ann Deveraux
Meeting a hero. Here I am with Mars Curiosity flight systems engineer Ann Devereaux. I wanted to have this shot so that I could show it to my daughters, explain who Ann is, the mind-blowing things she has done, and remind them they too can fly spaceships to others worlds if they want.
Here I am consulting with Goldstone engineer Jeff Osman about the best way to align the antenna to get a better signal from Saturn. Or maybe I’m just standing there gawking. You decide køb cialis. Photo: Eric Olsen
JPL’s Bob Haroldsson explains how the Goldstone team tackles the technical challenges of building and maintaining antennas as big as buildings. Photo: Bill Dunford
360: Flags of the three nations around the globe that are home to Deep Space Network tracking stations, positioned in the US, Spain and Australia such that the entire solar system is always in view no matter which way the Earth is turned. Photo: Bill Dunford
The Space Communication and Navigation Network (SCaN) Image source: NASA
The potential future of SCaN: optical links, interplanetary Internet, and real-time video feeds. Image source: NASA
The work of the Deep Space Network. Image source: NASA/JPL
sun and moon
Sun and Moon: While it may look like it was pointed at the sun, this dish was actually communicating with one of the GRAIL moon probes at the time. Photo: Bill Dunford
The desert, listening to the sky. Jupiter and a joshua tree in the Mojave Desert near Goldstone. Scattered among these stars are dozens of machines receding into the distance, invisible now but still speaking with home, whispering their secrets. Photo: Bill Dunford

Places to Find Out More About Goldstone & the Deep Space Network

NASA – Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex official site

NASA – JPL’s Deep Space Network site

NASA – Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN)

NASA – NetworKing game

NASA – “Radar Images Asteroid 2007 PA8” – an example of Goldstone at work doing astronomy

BBC – “Mars to Earth: How to send HD video between planets”

Jim Greenleaf – Videos from the NASA social media event held at Goldstone in October, 2012 (Twitter hashtag #DSN)

NASA – Madrid Deep Space Communications Complex

NASA – Canberra Deep Space Communications Complex – More personal accounts and press coverage of the Goldstone social media event

Flickr – More pictures

NASA – A video about the massive and delicate effort to replace the worn bearings in Goldstone’s largest antenna

National Geographic – The World’s Toughest Fixes – See season 4, “Deep Space Antenna”

NASA – Some footage from Goldstone and interviews with its staff, some of which were used in the National Geographic special


Awesome peek at how the day was! As usual, stunning photos and excellently written descriptions. I can only imagine how fantastic and surreal it must have been to be right there while they were communicating with some of mankind’s greatest feats of technology. Wow. So glad you got to go – and that you share it with the rest of us!!

Awesome, but AWESOME blog post. I’ve rarely seen such a good overview of what the DSN does along with describing the evocative desert landscape that Goldstone exists in. Kudos! People like you are the real heroes – you keep the dream of space alive in your spare time.