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.

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