The digital ranging system that measured the distance to the Apollo spacecraft
The basic idea was to send a radio signal to the spacecraft and determine how long it takes to return. Since the signal traveled at the speed of light, the time delay gives the distance. The main problem is that due to the extreme distance to the spacecraft, a radar-like return pulse would be too weak. The ranging system solved this in two ways. First, a complex transponder on the spacecraft sent back an amplified signal. Second, instead of sending a pulse, the system transmitted a long pseudorandom bit sequence. By correlating this sequence over multiple seconds, a weak signal could be extracted from the noise.
In this blog post I explain this surprisingly-complex ranging system. Generating and correlating pseudorandom sequences was difficult with the transistor circuitry of the 1960s. The ranging codes had to be integrated with Apollo’s “Unified S-Band” communication system, which used high-frequency microwave signals. Onboard the spacecraft, a special frequency-multiplying transponder supported Doppler speed measurements. Finally, communicating with the spacecraft required a complex network of ground stations spanning the globe.