Astronomical Engines, Big Complicated Machines

BCMs #15 – The Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex


The 70 meter deep space station antenna named 'Mars', a.k.a. DSS-14

Good morning everyone.

Today I thought that we’d take a quick look at the network of instruments that send and receive data to our spacecraft, satellites, and space probes, including the Mars Science Laboratory, also known as the Curiosity rover. In particular, we’ll look at the Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex and the radio antennas (antennae are found on critters, FYI) located there.

Goldstone is one of three facilities of the NASA Deep Space Network that are spaced approximately 120o around the world to allow constant communications with spacecraft as the Earth rotates. There is the Goldstone complex, also called the Goldstone Observatory, in the Mojave Desert in California; the Spanish Complex near Madrid; and the Australian Complex near Canberra.

From the NASA/JPL website:

“Each complex consists of at least four deep space stations equipped with ultrasensitive receiving systems and large parabolic dish antennas. There are:

One 34-meter (111-foot) diameter High Efficiency antenna.

One 34-meter Beam Waveguide antenna.
(Three at the Goldstone Complex and two in Madrid)

One 26-meter (85-foot) antenna.

One 70-meter (230-foot) antenna.

Five new 34-meter beam waveguide antennas were added to the system in the late 1990’s. Three were located at Goldstone, and one each in both Canberra and Madrid. To support the growing demands on the DSN, a second antenna was built at the Madrid site, completed in 2003, for a total of six beam waveguide antennas.

The antennas and data delivery systems make it possible to:

Acquire telemetry data from spacecraft.
Transmit commands to spacecraft.
Track spacecraft position and velocity.
Perform very-long-baseline interferometry observations.
Measure variations in radio waves for radio science experiments.
Gather science data.
Monitor and control the performance of the network.

The network is a facility of NASA, and is managed for NASA by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The Interplanetary Network Directorate (IND) manages the program within JPL.”

The Goldstone Deep Space Communications Center is currently tracking, receiving data and transmitting commands to at least 24 spacecraft.

The Goldstone Observatory


Click on the image to go to the interactive wikimapia (?) page for Goldstone.

The Goldstone Observatory is located on a large section of land in the Mojave Desert that would normally be referred to as a reservation, so I shall (see map above). The active antennas are located at four widely separated sites on the reservation, making use of the terrain to shield each site from interference and noise from the outside and each other.

Mars Station

This complex is located at the far north end of the reservation.

DSS-14 – the 70 meter Mars antenna is located here, the largest antenna at Goldstone and used primarily to communicate with the most distant spacecraft, such as Voyager 1, Cassini and New Horizons.



DSS-15 – a 34 meter HEF (High-Efficiency) antenna that was named ‘Uranus’ for its support of Voyager 2 on its Uranus flyby.


Uranus DSS-15

Apollo Complex

This site is located near the geographical center of the reservation. Several antennas are located here:

Acquisition antenna – a 2 meter dish used to locate fast moving spacecraft in Earth orbit and steer the main antenna onto the target.

DSS-16 – a 26 meter antenna primarily used to communicate with spacecraft. Originally designed as part of the Manned Space Flight Network and used for the Apollo missions. In the 1980s and ‘90s it was used to support Space Shuttle missions.


DSS-16 antenna

DSS-23 – a 23 meter antenna primarily used to communicate with spacecraft, not currently in service.



DSS-26 – 34 meter BWG (Beam Waveguide) Cluster of three antennas primarily used to communicate with spacecraft. These antennas can be combined into an array with the DSS-15 HEF antenna to provide the equivalent performance of the Mars antenna. There is a lot more that they can do by arraying their antennas with those from the other complexes.


34 meter BWG antenna cluster at the Apollo site


This site is located on the south eastern side of the reservation. From wikimapia:

 “The Echo site has been in operation since 1960 and is named for its initial operation in support of Project Echo, an experiment that transmitted voice communications coast to coast by bouncing the signals off the surface of a passive balloon-type satellite. The original 26-meter antenna erected for the Echo experiment was moved in 1961 to the nearby Venus site.
The Echo site is also the Goldstone administrative and support center. The low-profile buildings house offices, maintenance and repair shops, the communications center, the Goldstone transportation facilities, and a cafeteria.”

DSS-12 –  ECHO antenna


The original DSS-12 ECHO antenna


DSS-12 ECHO antenna conversion from 26 meters to 34 meters

Venus Research and Development Site

This site is located is the south east corner of the reservation. Here’s a rather dated but mostly accurate description from wikimapia:

The Venus site began operation in 1962 as the Network research and development station and is named for its first operational activity, a successful radar detection of the planet Venus. The 26-meter Venus antenna was originally located at the Echo site, where it was erected to support the Project Echo experiment described above. In 1961, the antenna was moved en masse by truck to its present location, a shielded site where research and development of high-power transmitters could be carried out without causing radio interference at the other stations, and where the electromagnetic radiation danger to personnel could be minimized by station layout.
Along with high-power transmitters, other capabilities developed and first tested at the Venus site include low-noise receivers, computer-controlled subsystems, digital signal processing, antenna arraying to increase telemetry data rates, remote station operations, and systems and equipment for NASA’s Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.
Radar astronomy experiments, which employ high-power transmitters, low-noise receivers, precision timing systems, and digital signal processing techniques, have been used extensively to field-test and verify new capabilities before their introduction into the Network.”

DSS-13 – a 34 meter R&D antenna. From the NASA/GDSCC site:

This 34-meter multi-frequency antenna (DSS 13) at Goldstone was completed in 1991 at the Venus research and development site. It is the first antenna for deep-space communications to use a beam waveguide to route microwave energy between the main reflector and a room located in the basement. In this way, many feeds and amplifiers can be placed in a laboratory environment and be illuminated selectively by means of a rotating microwave mirror.”


DSS-13 antenna


DSS-28 – named Gemini, these are 34 meter BWG antennas that were originally built for the Army and transferred to NASA in 1994. From the NASA/GDSCC site:

The first mission supported was the Solar Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), a cooperative mission between NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA). DSS-27 (in the foreground) is used today as part of the Deep Space Network and DSS-28 has been turned over for use as part of the GAVRT project (Goldstone Apple Valley Radio Telescope).”


DSS-27 and DSS-28, the Gemini antennas

Pioneer site

This site, located north east from the Apollo site, is the original Goldstone station and was deactivated in 1981.

DSS-11 – the Pioneer antenna is now designated as a National Historic Landmark by the US Dept of the Interior.

From the NASA/GDSCC site:

“The Pioneer Station (DSS-11), a 26 meter polar mounted antenna was the first deep space antenna to be constructed at Goldstone. Completed Dec.1958 in time to support the Pioneer 3 mission, DSS-11 became the proto-type antenna for the Deep Space Network and went on to track a variety of NASA missions including all Pioneer spacecraft, the Echo Balloon projects, Ranger, Lunar Orbiter, Surveyor, Apollo, Helios, Mariner, Viking and Voyager. A Manned Space Flight wing was built at the Pioneer site to support the manned space flights of the Apollo program. DSS-11 was officially mothballed in 1981 and was declared a National Historic Monument as the first deep space antenna in the Deep Space Network (DSN) in 1985.”


DSS-11 Pioneer antenna

There is a lot more to the NASA Deep Space Network and Goldstone, but I’m out of room, out of time and out of coffee. Check out the reference links for more.


Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex website

NASA Deep Space Network website

The Wikipedia article on Goldstone is pretty lousy and has at least one blatant error. Caveat emptor.

All images except for the map are by NASA/JPL at the above sites.

The map clipping is from wikimapia.

  • So they're set up to dish it out and take it?

    • The Professor

      Haven't heard from you in a while. What have you been up to?

      /yes, I'm ignoring the horrible pun.

      • Oh, you know, prepping for a LeMons race, taking the Index of Effluency with Pete and my niece as co-drivers, then recovering from the race while running multiple field trips. Also, the landlords are painting the house. It's been a busy few weeks. Yourself?

        • The Professor

          Alright, you raced a LeMons and won the IoE? Excellent! Congratulations! How did the car hold up? How did you hold up? Even with two co-drivers, that's a lot of driving/racing. And field trips? (shudder) You need to foist that off on a couple of TAs.
          Myself, I've been trying to master the application of nitrocellulose lacquer and the necessary wet-sanding and buffing techniques needed to achieve what's known as a 'piano finish'. It's not really all that hard, but it's tricky and easy to screw up. And screw up I have, but I'm getting better.

          • Thanks! We're at the end of this article, car #43:


            The car ran flawlessly on the first day (10:30 AM to 8:00 PM) but my niece brought it back to the pits after about an hour and a half on the second day (10:00 AM to 3:00 PM) when it began running poorly. We found that the vent caps had disappeared from two of the three carburetors, so fuel was spilling everywhere. Fortunately I had brought another set of carbs, so we swapped them. Pete then found it still wasn't running right, so a deeper investigation revealed that the middle piston had reached up and smashed the gap on its plug flat (probably from a worn big-end bearing on the connecting rod). The plug face also was covered in aluminum/fuel/oil gunk from the damaged piston. I'd brought a spare engine of unknown condition but by this point we didn't think we could complete the swap before the end of the race, so we got it running on its two remaining cylinders and finished that way. I then drove it 100 miles back home, still on two cylinders. I haven't tried running it since.

            Noted rocketeer Melissa was also on the team managing our paddock, but had no desire to take a 45-year-old, underpowered, thoroughly decrepit SAAB out on the track. Clearly she's the brains of the operation. (Apologies to my niece; Pete's on his own.)

            As for the field trips, I have one TA. We have two vans.

            From everything I've heard, lacquer is indeed tricky. Best wishes.

          • CaptianNemo2001

            Nice job and I like the sled on top. I suppose it could create some down force/act as areo package. What I want to now know is where you find one of those cars… I wish I could get the sunbeam running (its in pieces)…

          • The sled also turned out to be handy for hauling empty fuel jugs to and from the track.

            I got the car ten years ago from the guy who was then president of the NW SAAB Owners Club. He had dragged it home from a farmer's field before coming to his senses. I got it running and used it as one of my daily drivers for about six years (…until it destroyed its middle piston), then parked it for a couple of years, then spent the last couple of years turning it into a, um, "race car." I put the sled on it back when I was driving it regularly.

          • The Professor

            I had forgotten about the roof carrier. Truly, a nice touch, as is the already peeling paint on the door number. On to the next race!

            You need to buy a bigger van.

          • It turns out the trick to "vintage" numbering is to spray the background paint directly onto the accumulated grime, then let the car sit outside for, oh, about a year. Who knew?

          • OA5599

            Two stroke, two cylinders, toting a couple hundred pounds of nickels, I'm impressed, but why wasn't one of your highly capable tow vehicles put to use?

            And congrats on the IOE. Now that you have more than one vehicle officially recognized as worst of show, is there going to be an issue deciding a worst of driveway?

          • They don't do nickels for IOE, so we just got a thoroughly conventional check. It cleared, by the way.

            I'd brought along a set of magnetic trailer lights in case we needed to tow The Racing' SAAB home behind The Sleepin' SAAB, but it seemed sensible to see how far it could get under its own power first.

            I love all my vehicles; I could never choose among them. I admit, however, I am starting to wonder about that Lyman.

          • mr. mzs zsm msz esq

            Drat, so they listened to the bank and never again used a toilet seat then 🙁

        • mr. mzs zsm msz esq

          Maybe Pete, your niece, or you could write it up for Hooniverse? Also congrats!

          • Thanks! I've heard rumors of a write-up in the works.

          • 😀

          • I just finished a marathon 14 hours of writing, and I STILL haven't even gotten to the part where we are actually at the track yet.

            Yeah, it was quite the trip. And Mike is quite the guy (and clearly crazier than I).

            Look for part one here on Atomic Toasters in the next day or two.

          • mr. mzs zsm msz esq

            Dang, I leave on vacation tomorrow 🙁 I'll be eagerly waiting to read all the installments when I get back!

          • The Professor

            Oh my, fourteen hours of writing? I'm simply boggled by the thought and can hardly wait to read it.
            You should call it, Opus du Saab le Magnum..

          • OA5599

            Well, would you be less boggled by the thought of 13.5 hours of writer's block, followed by 30 minutes of incoherent scribbling, perhaps?

          • The Professor

            Oh yes, much less. That's his normal technique.

          • Perhaps I should stop giving away too many details, then. I hope you discuss your own method of arrive-and-drive transportation, so everyone can decide relative craziness for themselves….

  • On my first cross-country trip I was riding the Laverda through New Mexico, on a boring stretch west of Socorro when a sign came up that read,
    "Very Large Array Ahead"
    …I didn't really know what kind of precautions a motorcyclist might have to take when approaching a Very Large Array so I just blundered on. And there it was, the BCM they call the VLA.

    <img src=""&gt;

    • The Professor

      Yep, and I'm going to do a post on it one of these days. It's a fantastic instrument.

      • mr. mzs zsm msz esq

        It really is, you need should come-up with a neat-o metaphor for just how weak signals it detects.