Communications with Earth

Goldstone Antenna
The 70m antenna at Goldstone, California against the background of the Mojave desert.

Communications with Earth

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter communicates with the Deep Space Network antennas on Earth using two different kinds of radio waves:

X-band: the current standard in communications, which, when amplified, allows the orbiter to send data back to Earth more than 10 times faster than previous missions.
Ka-band: a previously untested radio frequency four times higher than X-band, which allows scientists to bring data back even faster.

From the viewpoint of a Deep Space Network antenna on Earth, the orbiter spends about one-third of its time behind Mars during each orbit. During these times, the orbiter is "occulted from the Earth." During occultations, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter cannot usefully send or receive radio signals.

So, out of 16 hours of daily Deep Space Network tracking, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter sends data to Earth for 10 to 11 hours, and does that for about 700 days. The data rate is about 0.5 to 4 megabits per second. With these figures in mind, the estimated volume of data returned by Mars Reconnaissance Orbit was predicted to be about 34 terabits. In fact, the spacecraft has already returned more than 50 terabits of data -- more data than all previous planetary missions combined.

Image of the Deep Space Network Communications antenna at Goldstone, California

NASA Deep Space Network (DSN)

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. Learn more ›