Picking up ultra-weak signals from spacecraft exploring deep in our Solar System requires cooling a detector to within a few degrees of absolute zero. Thanks to ESA's support, the technology is now available in Europe for the first time.
With future exploration missions like Gaia, BepiColombo and Juice set to deliver massive amounts of scientific data, ESA's trio of deep-space tracking antennas needed an upgrade.
The 35 m-diameter dishes in Australia, Spain and Argentina use cryogenic cooling to communicate via X-band microwave frequencies, similar to those used by radar speed detectors wielded so effectively by traffic police.
This enables communications at immense distances out to about 750 million km – equivalent to the distance from the Sun to Jupiter.
"It was necessary to upgrade the stations' receivers to improve sensitivity," says Stéphane Halté, project manager at ESOC, ESA's European Space Operations Centre, Darmstadt, Germany.
"They were designed to be 'future-ready' and a data-rate upgrade was always foreseen, given the needs of new missions like Juice."
There was just one problem: the upgrade required a specific type of circuit chip – using indium phosphide – that was not available in Europe owing to international export restrictions.
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