Artemis 1 lunar mission is interfering with communication with JWST
Two major NASA missions launched in the past year reveal a communications weakness in space.
NASA communicates with all of its distant spacecraft – from the Orion capsule to the James Webb Space Telescope (Webb or JWST) to Voyager 1 – via the Deep Space Network, a collection of 14 antennas in three locations in California, Spain and Australia. But the network is busy and makes every mission go further Soil orbit has the communication time it needs can be a pain, a problem that the artemis 1 mission has worsened.
“We were told in the summer that when the Artemis space mission got underway, the Deep Space Network would be almost entirely occupied by Artemis because they had to track the spaceship,” said Mercedes López-Morales, an astrophysicist at the Harvard Smithsonian Center. for Astrophysics and the chair of the JWST Users Committee, told a meeting of the US National Academies of Sciences’ Board on Physics and Astronomy on Wednesday (Nov. 30).
The time came on November 16 when NASA launched Artemis 1. A test flight to kick off the agency’s return to the moon, the 25-day mission sent an unmanned Orion capsule to lunar orbit and is expected to crash-land on December 11.
While Orion is in flight and beyond low Earth orbit, it is in near-constant contact with the Deep Space Network — a major drain that has taken the backseat of the James Webb Space Telescope and other missions. NASA knew that Artemis would put pressure on the Deep Space Network; the agency provided upgrades to some antennas and added two new ones January 2021 and March 2022 in preparation.
But communication time is still scarce. “It can go up to 80 hours — that’s about three and a half days — with no contact with JWST,” López-Morales said she was told before Artemis 1’s launch.
JWST scientists usually send assignments to the $10 billion observatory about once a week, she told the board, so irregular communications won’t affect the observatory’s receipt of instructions. But for astronomers to really enjoy Webb’s power, the telescope needs to be able to send its data home — and do it before the computer fills up.
“The big problem is that you can’t download data for so long,” López-Morales said.
For Artemis 1, she said, the Space Telescope Science Institute in Maryland, which owns both JWST and the Hubble Space Telescope, JWST’s observation schedule changed. Scientists prioritized shorter observations, which provide smaller amounts of data, to reduce the chance that the telescope’s computer will fill up before the Deep Space Network can accept the next data set.
But as NASA plans additional Artemis launches — and those with humans on board — in 2024 and beyond, scientists want another solution to the communications stagnation.
“We are desperately asking NASA to come up with a plan to somehow increase access to antennas,” López-Morales said.
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