The Deep Space Network (DSN), NASA's most powerful communications system for corresponding with distant spacecraft, celebrated its 50th anniversary Dec. 24.

The DSN started out humbly enough: Originally operated by the US Army in the 1950s, it began as only a few small antennas. Later, it swapped hands, coming under the jurisdiction of what was then a brand new NASA. On Dec. 24, 1963 the system was christened the DSN and today is comprised of three antenna complexes built around the world in such a way that, regardless of the Earth's rotation, spacecraft find themselves above the horizon of at least one of them. Those facilities have moved about over the years, with the current locations including Canberra, Australia; Madrid, Spain; and Goldstone, Calif.

During its tenure, the DSN's antennas have "talked" with nearly every mission stretching to the Moon or further, its communiqués including Neil Armstrong's "That's one small step for man. One giant leap for mankind," among others.

Neither is NASA the only one to benefit from the powerful system. Europe, Japan and Russia have all used the DSN at some point in planning and carrying out their missions. India recently joined the list due to its first interplanetary probe - the Mars Orbiter Mission.

The DSN not only enables missions to upload and download data to and from spacecraft, but allows navigators to identify landing sites. NASA's Curiosity probe, the Spitzer Space Telescope, Saturn explorer Cassini and both Voyager spacecraft are all currently supported by the system.

"Today, the DSN supports a fleet of more than 30 U.S. and international robotic space missions," said DSN Project Manager Al Bhanji of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., which manages the Deep Space Network. "Without the DSN, we would never have been able to undertake voyages to Mercury and Venus, visit asteroids and comets, we'd never have seen the stunning images of robots on Mars, or close-up views of the majestic rings of Saturn."