China Used NASA’s Juno Spacecraft to Test Deep Space Communications

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In a Not-Quite-Sneaky Move, China Used NASA’s Juno Spacecraft to Test Its Ground-Based Deep Space Communication Network – Without Telling Us.

Isaac Newton is often quoted as saying “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” The famous grandfather of modern science and inventor* of the calculus was talking about how his work was based on the previous work of Galileo, Copernicus, and the like. China should be saying the same thing right about now. Sure, they’ve rushed to the front of the pack in this new space race. But their success has been due in large part to stories like this one. An article in Space News details the story about how China secretly used NASA’s Juno Spacecraft to help test its space communications capabilities.   

Did They Hack Juno?

No, this story isn’t about anything that nefarious. Instead, they used NASA’s Juno spacecraft—which is orbiting Jupiter and cost us a lot of money to send there—to help test their location-finding capabilities in deep space. Essentially, they did the same thing that amateur radio operators do when they try to determine the location of another radio signal. Juno sends all kinds of telemetry and other data back to NASA. However, NASA encrypts those signals. The signals themselves, however, can be picked up by anyone with the right antenna. And it appears China has such an antenna.

Basically, they used those frequencies (even though they couldn’t decrypt the data) to determine Juno’s Doppler frequency. From that data, they could then determine its position and its orbit. 

NASA Had No Idea

Nor could they have. It’s nearly impossible to know if unintended recipients are tracking a radio signal, even an encrypted one. Once you broadcast those microwaves, they’re propagating through space and atmosphere, and any compatible antenna in range will be able to detect it. 

In reality, the most negative part of this news is the fact that China gets to benefit from the millions of dollars and thousands of hours it took to put Juno into orbit around Jupiter. And they didn’t have to spend a dime to do it.

These tests aren’t harmful to Juno, though, and the rest of the scientific community sees them as valuable. After all, since the end of the cold war, international cooperation, not competition, in space has been the norm. Unfortunately, however, even if NASA wanted to coordinate and help the Chinese right now, federal law prohibits it.

Europe, on the other hand, is more than willing to help out with the other tests. Those other tests include actual communications with satellites and with other deep-space probes. 

Despite the overall harmlessness of this revelation, it underscores the need for NASA and other government organizations operating in space to take China seriously. In fact, in nearly every facet of technology, China is advancing rapidly. Just this week several Democratic presidential candidates brought up the advances China’s made in A.I. The fight for control of the twenty-first century has begun, and we’d better get our gloves on. 

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Brandon Humphreys

Brandon Humphreys

I'm a wizard. I write stuff and it goes from my head into yours - Magic! Apart from that, I am the Senior Editor for Space Porn, a veteran, a rock guitarist, and a teacher.

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