About 35 kilometers outside of the Australian capital of Canberra a sign reads, “Help us listen to whispers from space.” Just past another sign adorned with the logos of NASA, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), the sign encourages entrants to the Canberra Deep Space Communications Complex (CDSCC), part of NASA’s Deep Space Network, to turn off all electronic devices that might interfere with radio communications to the farthest reaches of the solar system. This is where Australia and the majority of the world listens to spaceships and we were about to get an inside look.
When charting the initial course for our journey around the globe we couldn’t avoid the draw of Australia’s capital city on our way between Adelaide and Sydney. As two former NASA engineers, we knew Canberra was home to a critical space communications complex on NASA’s Deep Space Network that enabled us to see dazzling pictures of Mars and Pluto. What we didn’t know was how critical this particular location of the Deep Space Network is to making spaceflight happen. Nor were we fully aware of the deep history Canberra has played in human exploration beyond Earth. It is hard to imagine a key connection to the world’s spacecraft is in the midst of countryside filled with flocks of curious sheep and bouncing kangaroos.
After a double-check of our electronic devices, we drove past the sign to meet our friendly host for the day Glen Nagle of CSIRO. Glen handed us each a hard hat as we climbed into one of the on-site hybrid vehicles and made our way to the first gleaming white antenna: Deep Space Station 34. As we stood beneath the structure, Glen shared with us NASA’s special coding system for the the Deep Space Network and a little bit about how much work takes place at CDSCC.The Deep Space Network consists of 3 stations across the planet: one in Madrid, Spain, another in Goldstone, California, and then Canberra, Australia. To uniquely identify each antenna on the network, the dishes at Goldstone are numbered in the 10s and 20s, Madrid takes numbers in the 50s and 60s, and Canberra gets those numbered in the 30s and 40s. Collectively, the antennas in the Deep Space Network provide 24/7 coverage of the solar system for all spacecraft traveling beyond Earth – that’s currently about 40 spacecraft from over 25 countries!
In other words Canberra, as part of the Deep Space Network, provides a critical link to over $18 billon worth of spacecraft. Although you might expect that Canberra carries about one third of all the radio traffic to these spacecraft with Goldstone and Madrid carrying the rest of the workload, you’d be mistaken. Nearly 42% of all data emanating from celestial explorers like Voyager, New Horizons, and the Curiosity rover comes through Canberra. NASA’s Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) team and JPL, who provides funding and management of the station in partnership with CSIRO, aren’t playing favorites, it is just how orbital mechanics works out. Over the next decade, many of the destinations currently being explored by spacecraft across the solar system will spend more of their time in direct line-of-site with Earth’s Southern hemisphere and that number may grow to nearly 50%. In space geek jargon, they are moving south of the plane of the ecliptic, meaning more ‘air time’ with the only southern Deep Space Network station.
With an even stronger respect for the work that takes place at Canberra station, we snapped a few more pictures and then migrated to Deep Space Station (DSS) 35 – a 34-meter antenna that was currently “listening” to Japan’s Hyabusa-2 spacecraft on its way to the asteroid Ryugu to collect a sample for Earth return. We walked in awe around the metal structure as Glen told us about the global contributions and Australian innovation that makes such amazing work possible. The fabrication of the main support structure and sub-reflectors (the smaller ‘upside cone’ on the pointy end of each antenna) is done by Schwartz Hautmont in Spain. An Italian company, Cospal Composites, provides the incredibly accurate dish panels. As the pieces come in, General Dynamics Mission Systems from the United States completed final assembly. Once the structure is complete, the antenna is handed over to the Australian tracking station team for installation of electronics systems supplied by JPL and complete calibration and testing of all systems before the new antenna is commissioned into operational service. In the end, the final calibration on each antenna dish is equivalent to less than the thickness of a sheet of paper. While it is no small feat to see complex design and integration occurring from across the globe, bringing key components together with the tolerances needed to communicate with spacecraft billions of miles away makes it almost miraculous. To make this happen, it comes down to a very talented team of about 90 Australian engineers and technicians that bring everything together in addition to operating and maintaining each dish at the complex.
Not only does the Australian team operating the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex help everything run, they also seek innovation whenever possible. Like most engineering feats, budget is always tight. While NASA’s budget for CDSCC hasn’t afforded quite the growth the station will certainly need in the future, Canberra’s team has found ways to yield savings in construction and operation which is applied towards new equipment. We passed one example under DSS-35 as Glen pointed out an array of pumps. To maintain accurate communications over long distances, it is very important to keep instrumentation cool. For most complexes like CDSCC, large and expensive cooling systems are installed to maintain the necessary tolerances. As DSS-35 was under construction, the Australian team at Canberra suggested utilizing a cooling approach uncommon in the antenna industry – using the antenna’s concrete pad as a heat sink by recirculating water that had been heated by the antennas transmitter system through piping beneath. In the end, this innovation yielded significant savings over expensive traditional coolers and partly offset some of the the costs of construction. It is expected that this new antenna will first come online in support of the European Space Agency’s and Roscosmos ExoMars mission towards the end of 2016.
After reaching a whole new appreciation for the work at CDSCC, Glen took us a bit back in time to share with us how Australia has always played a key role in space exploration. The day was July 21, 1969 (or July 20th depending on which side of the international date line you’re on) and Neil Armstrong was about to make humankind’s first step on another celestial body. We’ve all seen the ghostly images of those first steps that were broadcast to the world, but Australia saw those 300 milliseconds before the rest of the globe as the Deep Space Station 44 antenna from nearby Honeysuckle Creek was the first earthly point to relay the radio transmission. We were now standing beneath that very dish which was moved to CDSCC in 1981 where it was re-designated as DSS-46. Although decommissioned in 2009, the dish remains in-place as a tribute to Australia’s key role in humankind’s first voyage to the moon.
Ironically, DSS-46 wasn’t initially assigned the task of relaying the first video transmission from the Moon. As NASA was preparing for the Apollo 11 mission, there was strong desire to have the initial broadcast come from an antenna on American soil – at the Goldstone complex. But political desires matter little when orbital mechanics play a role. As the mission’s timeline and events evolved, the role of ‘prime antenna’ for the historic first steps bounced between Goldstone and the Australian stations of Tidbinbilla, Honeysuckle Creek, and CSIRO’s Parkes Observatory. Between Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s desire to move the moonwalk earlier, a fire at Tidbinbilla station just a few days before the landing, and weather affecting the antenna at Parkes Observatory, it appeared the initial broadcast of Neil’s first steps would fall to either Goldstone or Honeysuckle Creek. With NASA having a few options for relaying the momentous occasion to the world, the decision came down to picture quality and the quality from Goldstone was not only poorer, but the image being broadcast was initially upside down. The camera recording the Apollo 11 crew coming down the ladder of the Eagle was mounted upside down so it could be better secured and more easily retrieved by the crew on their journey to the lunar surface. To ‘upright’ the picture prior to broadcasting, a scan converter switch at each station had to be properly set to ‘flip’ the image. Apparently the switch was not set correctly at Goldstone, meaning the best image at the right time was coming from Honeysuckle Creek and Deep Space Station 46.
Some may recall the 2001 movie The Dish which loosely portrays these events and depicts Parkes Observatory as providing the initial Apollo 11 broadcast to the world. While Parkes did play a critical role (they carried a significant portion of the Apollo 11 broadcast and later provided some of the best image quality of the historic moonwalk), the humble little antenna we stood beneath took the first words spoken from another planetary surface and broadcast them to the world. In a way, the antenna symbolizes the historic effort of not just the individuals at Honeysuckle Creek, but of the entire country of Australia in making the Apollo missions a success for the world to witness. For those really wanting to geek out on the full chain of events at the Australian tracking stations and Goldstone, we’d suggest reading On Eagle’s Wings: The Story of the Parkes Apollo 11 Support by John Sarkissian.
As our tour with Glen drew to a close, we meandered through the visitor’s center taking in the amazing collection of space artifacts. A full-scale Lunar Module descent engine, a 3.8 billion-year old Moon rock, and even original recordings of Neil and Buzz’s heart rates upon landing on the Moon are but a few of the items beautifully displayed free of charge to anyone who makes the journey.
We concluded our visit by sitting at the visitor’s café and discussing the future of space exploration and the role innovation will play with Glen. A crackle over the loudspeakers interrupted us and we shifted our attention to the largest antenna in the southern hemisphere, DSS-43 at 70 meters, rotating to its parked position after communicating with the New Horizons spacecraft somewhere beyond Pluto. It was at that moment we realized that Canberra, CSIRO, and Australia would forever play a role in some of the most amazing feats in exploration we have yet to see. Australia and the Deep Space Network is where humankind listens to our most intrepid of explorers…you can’t leave Earth without them.