We post all kinds of amazing pictures from space around here, but we almost never talk about how those pictures actually get from space to Earth. For the last 50 years (50 years as of tonight), NASA's Deep Space Network has been the way that we communicate with our robotic explorers on Mars, around Saturn, on the way to Pluto, and far, far beyond.
The Deep Space Network spans the entire globe, thanks to massive antenna installations on three continents, including Canberra, Australia; Madrid, Spain; and Goldstone, California. More than 30 different spacecraft from a whole bunch of countries are relying on the network to phone home, and it's also used as a powerful radar that can ping near-Earth asteroids to figure out whether or not they're likely to put an end to our species anytime soon. A bit farther afield, the DSN can also do some hardcore science, like studying pulsars and quasars.
At some point in the near future, the Deep Space Network will be upgraded to be able to handle optical communication frequencies as well as radio frequencies, which should massively increase available bandwidth. We're talking streaming video back from Mars in as real time as the speed of light will allow. Awesome.
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