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Italy involved in Deep Space Network

ASI SDSA (Sardinia Deep Space Antenna) new centre begins activity. It uses INAF Sardinia Radio Telescope to track interplanetary probes. Cassini and its Grand Finale will be its first task

Today, the Sardinia Deep Space Antenna (SDSA) will begin tracking the NASA-ESA-ASI Cassini probe, which will be performing the last act in its twenty-year mission dedicated to Saturn and its system. The Italian Space Agency's SDSA is a new configuration developed to support interplanetary missions, equipping the Sardinia Radio Telescope (SRT) built by INAF (National Institute of Astrophysics) in collaboration with the Italian Space Agency, the Sardinia Region and the Ministry of Education, Universities and Research, and designed to study the universe and its mysteries. From January, the Sardinia Deep Space Antenna (SDSA) will be officially operative in NASA's Deep Space Network, as well as providing communication and navigation services for European interplanetary probes with a particular specialisation in Martian probes, in preparation for human exploration of the planet.  

The SDSA was built thanks to agreements between ASI and INAF and a specific ASI-NASA agreement that guarantees the antenna's use for numerous interplanetary missions in collaboration with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Its debut is part of the crucial Grand Finale phase of the Cassini mission in the Saturn system. The SDSA will be following the final days of the probe's long voyage before it touches down on the planet, scheduled for 15 September. 

The agreements between ASI and INAF involve the Agency's exclusive scientific and technological research projects, equipment, communications and tracking operations linked to deep space, and activities of shared interest in sectors such as Radio Science, Space Debris tracking and Space Weather. The SDSA's capacity has been extended and will continue to be increased in subsequent phases to offer the country full Deep Space Ground Capability, earning Italy an increasingly important role in current and future interplanetary missions.

The first step is not an easy one, and the SDSA is showing off its capacity right from the start with the conclusion of the Cassini program. The tests of “capturing” and following Cassini actually began on 22 August, when the probe appeared visible on the radio antenna. This initial phase will take place in the X band, thanks to a highly sensitive receiver installed last spring. This was contributed by JPL/Caltech, as part of the collaboration agreement between NASA and ASI on upgrading and using the Sardinia Radio Telescope. SDSA also has specific equipment provided by the European Space Agency (ESA) and the collaboration of the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC). 

Italian Space Agency president Roberto Battiston commented that: “Today is a very special day: we are opening ASI's first external research unit at the INAF base in Cagliari, with the first observations of Cassini's radio signals collected by SRT and coming from one billion, four hundred million kilometres away. These observations place SRT in the worldwide network of radio-telescopes that scan deep space to communicate with the satellites sent to planets in the solar system. It is an exhilarating result, achieved after a year of intense work in collaboration with NASA-JPL and our colleagues at INAF, with whom ASI is sharing the use of the extraordinary SRT telescope. This is the first step in a long and ambitious process, aiming to reach full transmission and reception capacity in order to contribute to managing the numerous missions to Mars that will be launched during 2020. That year there will be a sort of spatial bottleneck, and all the radio-telescopes in the world will be used to guide satellite traffic around Mars and exchange data and commands: based on these initial results, we are confident that with SRT, ASI will be playing its part in the DSN.” 

“Having the ASI unit based at our facilities in Sardinia is the result of intense collaboration between the two institutions”, commented Nichi D'Amico, President of the National Institute of Astrophysics, “and the attention that NASA place on the performance of the SRT radio-telescope and our development laboratories, holding great promise for the future”. “Over this period I have seen the INAF and ASI teams working very well together, and very enthusiastically”, continued President D'Amico, “with complementary and top level scientific and technological skills and interests, that will certainly contribute to exploiting all the interdisciplinary features of these amazing facilities that the island hosts with such care”. He continued that: “I am also proud to see young people involved who trained in Sardinia, at the University and then at INAF's laboratories. Without doubt, this shows the level of academic and scientific excellence in Sardinia.” 

“With the San Basilio radio-telescope, Sardinia is strengthening its role in the worldwide aerospace network thanks to an extraordinary working collaboration between NASA, ASI and INAF. We are very proud of this”, commented the Vice President of the Region and Councillor for Planning, Raffaele Paci, “and we have always been convinced that in this sector, our region with its wide range of skills can have a truly excellent position. The Council is very much behind this, and we are working to set up a platform of international importance, including companies, universities and public research centres. As a Region, we are ready to offer our full support, also in terms of promoting national and international agreements that further strengthen Sardinia's position and role”, he concluded.  

“The SDSA control centre and the equipment installed on the antenna offer huge potential”, explained Salvatore Viviano, ASI Program Manager, “which we will be using, in the time dedicated to exclusive use by ASI, to provide telecommunications, tracking and radio-science services for interplanetary missions, in coordination with the JPL/NASA Deep Space Network (DSN), and in the future, as part of ESA's ESTRACK network, supporting the missions of both ASI and other space agencies. ASI's third party research unit (URT) will be performing data analysis, experimentation and research embracing a wide range of space science and technology associated with the various types of interplanetary missions in which SDSA will be collaborating. Moreover, the URT will be conducting research jointly with INAF, in sectors of common interest. The next steps in the project will involve stepping up the instruments and human resources, allowing the SDSA to reach full operating capacity by the end of 2020, offering complete services such as a station for international deep space, alongside its current capacity to pick up signals in the X band, Ka band and, after a suitable design phase, transmit in the X and K bands, the latter specifically for radio science”.