Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex
Not far from the political chatter of the nation’s capital are huge dishes that track and talk to spacecraft at the edge of our Solar System.
AGUSH OF ZEROS and ones pours in from the vicinity of the planet Pluto. This series of numerals, sent to Earth by the New Horizons probe, represents the first close-up photos of the dwarf planet. It is 4pm on 15 July 2015 and six staff from the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex (CDSCC) watch closely as this information streams in.
Media officer Glen Nagle looks the wear iest. He’s midway through a 72-hour international media frenzy, only catching five hours sleep in his office between interviews. For the rest of the link operators, it is just one of many special moments they have facilitated, and they soon return to tracking the spacecraft. They are all keenly aware that entire careers are built around the data they collect. Plaques on the wall outside salute their part in everything from the mission to put the Ranger probes on the Moon in 1964–5, to the landing of the Mars rover Curiosity in 2012.
You’ll see glimpses of the giant radio antennas between rolling hills as you wind past Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve, about a 40-minute drive from Canberra. These giant dishes are called deep space stations, and they beep, grind and rotate mysteriously just beyond the hustle and bustle of the nation’s capital. Six antennas huddle on the grassy 147ha site at Paddys River in the Tidbinbilla Valley. One is a landscape-dwarfing dish as wide as a 22-storey building is tall. Dotted around are three working 34m dishes and one under construction. On arrival, you pass Deep Space Station 46, the 26m-wide dish from the old Honeysuckle Creek-Tracking Station. Now decommissioned, it is famous for receiving the telecast of the 1969 Moon landing.
Ian Middleton is settled deep into a high-backed chair in the operations room, surrounded by blinking
screens and drinking black coffee to get him through a 12-hour shift.The link controller points to a colourful, swirling mass that represents the Sun’s sudden release of built-up magnetic energy, known as a solar flare.
A slight worry to NASA, Ian says, is that a sizeable solar flare can damage power lines here on Earth.“Did you know that a solar flare knocked out all the electricity in Quebec in 1989?” he asks. “We’re just about due for another of that size – or bigger.”That’s why a team is tracking three probes that monitor the flares.
Ian’s team – four link operators and a shift supervisor – is one of four teams that work in shifts to ensure that this room is staffed around the clock.
The CDSCC is owned by NASA, but it is run through the innovation centre at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, as well as by the CSIRO. It is one of three deep-space tracking stations in NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN) – the others are in Goldstone, California, and Madrid, Spain. The tracking stations are strategically placed around the globe, so that, as the Earth rotates, they can stay in touch with interplanetary spacecraft 24 hours a day.The DSN provides the vital link to the spacecraft of many nations travelling between the planets and beyond.
Ian’s team point the antennas at dozens of probes, tracking them, collecting information and relaying instructions from Earth.The data flow back to the JPL, where the information is processed before being sent to mission teams around the world.
Our mobile phones are contributing to ‘noise’ that is proving to be a growing headache for the CDSCC. Ashish Soni, a digital systems engineer, says it’s getting harder to make sure interference doesn’t scramble information.“It’s a very challenging task given that the distances we deal with are in billions of kilometres and taking into account the terrestrial noise,” he says.“At the moment, for example, most mobile phone communi- cation operates very near to some frequencies we use.”
Mobiles and wi-fi must be switched off while on site and the hills around CDSCC provide some protection, but terrestrial noise is increasing. The nature of the electronics used to detect the signals from space is so sensitive that even the logistics team packing mail must carefully handle items on special material so that the static from their movements doesn’t charge the equipment.
One solution is to build antennas with their electronics isolated underground, says Tony Ross, a 36-year veteran of the CDSCC. Until his recent retirement,Tony was part of the 40-strong engineering and technical teams that keep the dishes functioning.
The valley rolls out below us as he takes us up the array of steel ladders that gives access to the big dish.We pass the hydraulically pressurised oil layer that helps the 4000-tonne structure rotate smoothly through 360°, and the car-sized motors that allow it glide up and down.
In 1988 the Complex increased its capacity to hear the far-rangingVoyager probes – which today send back information from interstellar space beyond our Solar System – by upgrading the big dish by 6m, making it 70m wide. It’s the largest steerable antenna in the Southern Hemisphere, and one of the biggest in the world.
This huge dish is now more than 40 years old and Tony says it’s probably the biggest single antenna Australia will ever have. In the next 10 years it will be replaced by smaller, more flexible arrays – a cluster of closely spaced smaller, linked antennas.
Back in operations, Ian sits below clocks tracking Goldstone and Madrid time.The former high-school science teacher has worked here for 18 years but says he’s “still the new guy on the block”. Staff here tend to count their tenure in decades. “If you have a rocket launch, it’s exciting; you feel part of the achievement. When you land something on a planet, you’ve done your job,” says Ian.“It’s very addictive.”
Tony Ross (above) spent much of his 36-year career maintaining the CDSCC’s antennas. The biggest requires enormous cogs (top left) to turn the 4000t structure. In operations, Ian ‘Radar’ Middleton (right) and his team monitor communication and help check the data directing the dishes at deep spacecraft.
Visitors entering the site are asked to turn off devices that might interfere with equipment intercepting signals from space.