23 March 2010—A small, severely damaged spacecraft named Hayabusa is limping back to Earth with a jury-rigged ion drive that would have made Star Trek’ s Scotty proud. Already seven years into its planned five-year mission to retrieve soil samples from an asteroid, the probe faces one last round of hazards before its midnight landing in Australia sometime in June with a sample canister.

If successful, the mission will mark the first retrieval of material samples from an object beyond the moon. (Two earlier NASA probes, Stardust and Genesis, retrieved nothing more than space dust from such distances.) Yet even if the canister turns out to be empty, the probe will still have brought back useful scientific observations, demonstrated the technology, and provided an inspirational example of ingenuity and perseverance.

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Two men fix metal rods to a gold-foiled satellite component in a warehouse/clean room environment

Technicians at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems facilities in Redondo Beach, Calif., work on a mockup of the JWST spacecraft bus—home of the observatory’s power, flight, data, and communications systems.

NASA

For a deep dive into the engineering behind the James Webb Space Telescope, see our collection of posts here.

When the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) reveals its first images on 12 July, they will be the by-product of carefully crafted mirrors and scientific instruments. But all of its data-collecting prowess would be moot without the spacecraft’s communications subsystem.

The Webb’s comms aren’t flashy. Rather, the data and communication systems are designed to be incredibly, unquestionably dependable and reliable. And while some aspects of them are relatively new—it’s the first mission to use Ka-band frequencies for such high data rates so far from Earth, for example—above all else, JWST’s comms provide the foundation upon which JWST’s scientific endeavors sit.

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