The NASA Deep Space Network (DSN) is an international network of antennas that provide the communication links between the scientists and engineers on Earth to the missions in space and on Mars.
The DSN consists of three deep-space communications facilities placed approximately 120 degrees apart around the world: at Goldstone, in California's Mojave Desert; near Madrid, Spain; and near Canberra, Australia. This strategic placement permits constant observation of spacecraft as the Earth rotates on its own axis.
During critical mission events, such as landing on Mars, multiple antennas on Earth and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter track the signals from the spacecraft to minimize risk of loss of communication. During the landed operations phase on the martian surface, the Mars Science Laboratory utilizes the Multiple Spacecraft Per Aperture (MSPA) capability of the DSN, which allows a single DSN antenna to receive downlink from up to four spacecraft simultaneously, as well as using the relay capabilities of the Mars Odyssey (ODY) and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) spacecraft.
The rover's downlink sessions (when the rover sends information back to Earth) are generally roughly 15 minutes each, with usually two downlink sessions per relay orbiter (ODY, MRO) per martian day (sol), with two sessions overnight and two sessions in the late martian afternoon. MSPA allows only one spacecraft at a time to have the uplink, and Curiosity commands early in each sol (martian day) for roughly 30 minutes to provide the instructions for that sol's activities.
The Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft transmitted in X-band during its entry, descent and landing process, which was the expected path for confirmation of the initial events in the process. Due to signal strength constraints, these transmissions were simple tones, comparable to semaphore codes, rather than full telemetry. The Deep Space Network listened for these direct-to-Earth transmissions. However, Earth went out of view of the spacecraft, “setting” below the Martian horizon, partway through the descent, so the X-band tones were not available for confirming the final steps in descent and landing. By then, the bent-pipe relay via Odyssey had begun.
The benefits of using the orbiting spacecraft are that the orbiters are closer to the rover than the DSN antennas on Earth and the orbiters have Earth in their field of view for much longer time periods than the rover on the ground.
Because the orbiters are only between 160 and 250 miles (257 and 400 kilometers) above the surface of Mars, the rover doesn’t have to "yell" as loudly (or use as much energy to send a message) to the orbiters as it does to the antennas on Earth.
The cruise stage had two antennas that were used to communicate with the Earth. The low-gain antenna was omni-directional and was used when the spacecraft was near the Earth. Because it radiated in all directions, the low-gain antenna did not need to be pointed at the Earth to enable a communications link. The medium-gain antenna was a directional antenna that had to be pointed toward the Earth for communications, but had more power to communicate when the spacecraft was farther away from the Earth. The medium-gain antenna acted like a floodlight and could direct the energy into a tighter beam to reach Earth. Just like a floodlight directs more light into a focused area than a normal light bulb does out of a lamp, the medium-gain antenna could direct the data from the spacecraft into a tighter beam than the low-gain antenna.
When the rover speaks directly to Earth (from the surface of Mars), it sends messages via its high-gain antenna (HGA). The high-gain antenna can send a "beam" of information in a specific direction and it is steerable, so the antenna can move to point itself directly to any antenna on Earth. The benefit of having a steerable antenna is that the entire rover doesn't necessarily have to change positions to talk to Earth. Like turning your neck to talk to someone beside you rather than turning your entire body, the rover can save energy by moving only the antenna.
An orbiter passes over the rover and is in the vicinity of the sky to communicate with the rover for about eight minutes at a time, per sol. In that time, between 100 and 250 megabits of data can be transmitted to an orbiter. That same 250 megabits would take up to 20 hours to transmit direct to Earth! The rover can only transmit direct-to-Earth for a few hours a day due to power limitations or conflicts with other planned activities, even though Earth may be in view much longer.
Mars is rotating on its own axis so Mars often "turns its back" to Earth, taking the rover with it. The rover is turned out of the field of view of Earth and goes "dark," just like nighttime on Earth, when the sun goes out of the field of view of Earth at a certain location when the Earth turns its "back" to the sun. The orbiters can see Earth for about 2/3 of each orbit, or about 16 hours a day. They can send much more data direct-to-Earth than the rover, not only because they can see Earth longer, but also because they have a lot of power and bigger antennas than the rover.
The NASA Deep Space Network - or DSN - is an international network of antennas that supports interplanetary spacecraft missions and radio and radar astronomy observations for the exploration of the solar system and the universe.
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