Artemis 1 moon mission squeezing communications with James Webb Space Telescope.

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An artist's depiction of the James Webb Space Telescope in deep space. (Image credit: Kevin Gill)

 Recent launches of two significant NASA missions are exposing a communication gap in space.

All of NASA's far-reaching spacecraft, including the Orion spacecraft, the James Webb Space Telescope (Webb or JWST), and Voyager 1, are connected to the Deep Space Network, a group of 14 antennas spread over three locations in California, Spain, and Australia. However, the network is crowded, making it challenging to guarantee that any mission beyond Earth orbit gets the communications time it requires. The Artemis 1 mission has made this problem worse.

Mercedes López-Morales, an astronomer at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and the chair of the JWST Users Committee, revealed to a gathering of the U.S. National Academies of Sciences' Board on Physics and Astronomy on Wednesday that when the Artemis space mission launched, the Deep Space Network would be practically fully taken over by Artemis because they needed to keep track of the spaceship (Nov. 30).

On November 16, NASA launched Artemis 1 at the appropriate moment. The 25-day mission, a test flight to launch the organization's return to the moon, sent an unmanned Orion spacecraft into lunar orbit and is slated to splash down on Earth on December 11.

Orion's near-constant communication with the Deep Space Network both in flight and outside of low Earth orbit represents a significant resource drain that has forced other missions including the James Webb Space Telescope to take a backseat. NASA planned improvements to certain antennas and installed two new ones in January 2021 and March 2022 in anticipation of Artemis's pressure on the Deep Space Network.

Time for communication is still limited. Before Artemis 1's launch, "there might be up to 80 hours," or around three and a half days, with no touch with JWST at all, according to López-Morales.

She informed the board that JWST scientists typically communicate directives to the $10 billion telescope once a week, ensuring that the observatory receives them. But before Webb's computer fills up, the telescope must be able to broadcast home its data so that scientists can truly benefit from its power.

The main problem, according to López-Morales, is that you can't download data for that long.

The Space Telescope Science Institute in Maryland, which runs both JWST and the Hubble Space Telescope, altered JWST's observation plan for Artemis 1, according to her. To lessen the likelihood that the telescope's computer would fill up before the Deep Space Network could receive the next batch of data, scientists emphasized shorter observations, which produce smaller batches of data.

However, since NASA intends to launch Artemis again in 2024 and beyond, this time with people on board, scientists are looking for an alternative approach to the communication problem.

We are pleading with NASA to devise a strategy that would allow us to access antennas more often, López-Morales added.

Also Read: China's Shenzhou 14 astronauts return to Earth after helping build Tiangong space station.

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