NASA began today replacing an aging set of Earth-based deep space antennas with new ones that will allow it to communicate with distant probes far more efficiently than the broadband connections in the typical home.
The overhaul aims to boost communication from spacecraft to Earth by as much as 50 times compared to today's meager deep-space data transfer rates. A Mars mission that today is limited to downloading a few megabits per second might someday get as much as 600 megabits per second — much faster than what you probably use.
On Earth, the FCC defines broadband as being at least 768 kilobits per second (Kbps) for download speeds, or about 232,000 bits short of a megabit.
The new dishes, called "beam wave guide" antennas, can each work at different frequencies for a more flexible overall setup, used for receiving images and other data from spacecraft at Mars and throughout the solar system. The new antennas will receive higher-frequency, wider-bandwidth signals known as the "Ka band." This band, required for new NASA missions approved after 2009, allows the newer antennas to carry more data than the older ones.
Phase 1 of the project, for which ground was broken today, will build three 112-foot (34-meter) antennas near Canberra, Australia, by 2018. The other complexes slated for upgrade are in Goldstone, California, and Madrid, Spain. Combined, the three locations around the world provide a 24/7 reception center for spacecraft throughout the solar system.
Ultimately the upgraded Deep Space Network would be able to download the equivalent of an HD YouTube video quickly, compared to today's setup that would struggle to download an mp3 music file.