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January 17, 2023

Even space travelers need earthquake early warning

A rover on Mars or a spacecraft on its way to Jupiter might seem immune to any shaking caused by an earthquake.

However, if that shaking were to affect a massive radio antenna in Southern California, those space travelers might temporarily lose their virtual tether and communication line back to Earth.

To help keep that from happening, NASA’s Deep Space Network radio antennas in Goldstone California, as well as the mission’s operation base at the space agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, will soon be connected to the USGS-managed ShakeAlert Earthquake Early Warning System.

Once implemented, the antenna will autonomously stop moving and halt high power transmissions the moment it receives and processes data from the ShakeAlert system indicating that earthquake shaking could damage the antenna and impact human safety.

Simultaneously, the Goldstone ground crews and staff in Pasadena will receive real-time messages that the automated antenna protection system has swung into action and to take protective actions like Drop, Cover, and Hold On.

“Imagine being on a trip far from home and calling your family to let them know you arrived safely at your destination, but the call doesn't connect,” Robert de Groot, who is a lead with the ShakeAlert Operations Team. “The partnership between JPL and the ShakeAlert System helps traveling spacecraft avoid that same fate. The partnership provides spacefaring explorers with a more protected tether to call their home base on Earth, in addition to protecting the people who operate the system. We are very excited that DSN will be 'Powered by ShakeAlert'."

Earthquake ready in space

The Deep Space Network is NASA’s international collection of giant radio antennas used to communicate with spacecraft at the Moon and beyond. The Deep Space Network consists of three facilities spaced equidistant from each other – approximately 120 degrees apart in longitude – around the world. These sites are at Goldstone, near Barstow, California; near Madrid, Spain; and near Canberra, Australia. The strategic placement of these sites permits constant communication with spacecraft as our planet rotates – before a distant spacecraft sinks below the horizon at one DSN site, another site can pick up the signal and carry on communicating.

“The antennas of NASA’s Deep Space Network are the indispensable link to robotic explorers venturing beyond Earth,” said Jim Buckley, DSN Continuity Of Operations Planning Manager at JPL. “Having ShakeAlert integrated into DSN allows an additional layer of protection for mission success.”

The antennas of NASA’s Deep Space Network are the indispensable link to robotic explorers venturing beyond Earth. They provide the crucial connection for commanding our spacecraft and receiving their never-before-seen images and scientific information on Earth, propelling our understanding of the universe, our solar system and ultimately, our place within it. Managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for the Space Communications and Navigation Program, based at NASA Headquarters within the Space Operations Mission Directorate, the Deep Space Network is what enables missions to track, send commands to, and receive scientific data from faraway spacecraft.

Next steps

Currently, JPL and USGS are working together to develop and test the software for this innovative use of Earthquake Early Warning for the Goldstone facility and JPLs campus in Pasadena. The application will go live in the coming months. Stay tuned for updates by following ShakeAlert on Twitter - @USGS_ShakeAlert.

Further reading:

How to become a ShakeAlert partner and engage with the system.

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