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NASA Space Place

Doing Science with a Spacecraft's Signals

David Doody

In this poster art of Mariner 4, you can see the parabolic reflector atop the spacecraft bus. Like the reflector inside a flashlight, it sends a beam of electromagnetic energy in a particular direction. Credit: NASA/JPL/Corby Waste.


Mariner 2 to Venus, the first interplanetary flight, was launched August 27 fifty years ago. This was a time when scientists were first learning that Venus might not harbor jungles under its thick atmosphere after all. A Russian scientist had discovered that atmosphere during the rare Venus transit of 1761, because of the effects of sunlight from behind.

Mariner 2 proved interplanetary flight was possible, and our ability to take close-up images of other planets would be richly rewarding in scientific return. But it also meant we could use the spacecraft itself as a “light” source, planting it behind an object of our choosing and making direct measurements.

Mariner 4 did the first occultation experiment of this sort when it passed behind Mars as seen from Earth in July 1965. But, instead of visible light from the Sun, this occultation experiment used the spacecraft’s approximately 2-GHz radio signal.

The Mariner 4 experiment revealed Mars’ thin atmosphere. Since then, successful radio science occultation experiments have been conducted at every planet and many large moons. And another one is on schedule to investigate Pluto and its companion Charon, when the New Horizons spacecraft flies by in July 2015. Also, during that flyby, a different kind of radio science occultation experiment will investigate the gravitational field.

The most recent radio science occultation experiment took place September 2, 2012, when the Cassini spacecraft carried its three transmitters behind Saturn. These three different frequencies are all kept precisely “in tune” with one another, based on a reference frequency sent from Earth. Compared to observations of the free space for calibration just before ingress to occultation, the experiment makes it possible to tease out a wide variety of components in Saturn’s ionosphere and atmosphere.

Occultation experiments comprise only one of many categories of radio science experiments. Others include tests of General Relativity, studying the solar corona, mapping gravity fields, determining mass, and more. They all rely on NASA’s Deep Space Network to capture the signals, which are then archived and studied.

Find out more about spacecraft science experiments in “Basics of Space Flight,” a website and book by this author, Kids can learn all about NASA’s Deep Space Network by playing the “Uplink-Downlink” game at

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.


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