Deep Space Mined

The Monthly (Australia) - - NEWS - by Andrew P Street

As you pass the “turn off all phones” sign and set off on the 4-kilo­me­tre drive to CSIRO’s Can­berra Deep Space Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Com­plex (CDSCC) at Tid­bin­billa, the first thing that catches your eye is the ra­dio tele­scope loom­ing above the rolling green fields. Deep Space Sta­tion 43, whose mighty dish is 70 me­tres in di­am­e­ter, is the largest steer­able ra­dio an­tenna in the south­ern hemi­sphere. With sup­port from the other CDSCC dishes, it is Earth’s sole link with far-off probes like Voy­ager 2, sit­u­ated at the edge of the so­lar sys­tem, and New Hori­zons, which pho­tographed Pluto and is now deep in the Kuiper Belt. DSS-43 was also the tele­scope that picked up the fi­nal trans­mis­sion from the Cassini probe as it va­por­ised in the at­mos­phere of Saturn in Septem­ber. It’s there­fore easy to miss the much smaller tele­scope near the car park, its 26-me­tre dish pointed per­ma­nently at the sky. This is DSS-46, de­com­mis­sioned in 2009 after 43 years of ser­vice. Orig­i­nally it was in­stalled at the Honey­suckle Creek track­ing sta­tion, just un­der 40 kilo­me­tres away and long since closed. And, though few are aware of it, this tele­scope is how we re­ceived the first im­ages of man setting foot on the Moon. Ask an Aus­tralian about Apollo 11 and chances are they’ll rave about the key role that the Parkes ra­dio tele­scope in cen­tral New South Wales played in re­lay­ing the first im­ages of Neil Arm­strong’s de­scent to the lu­nar sur­face. It’s the plot of 2000’s heart­warm­ing dram­edy The Dish, in which a rag­tag team of lo­cal sci­en­tists lock horns with the stuffed shirts of NASA on the way to suc­cess­fully re­ceiv­ing the first im­ages from the Moon land­ing. It’s en­ter­tain­ing, in­spir­ing, and not at all how it ac­tu­ally hap­pened. Char­ac­ters were cre­ated, nat­u­rally, and plot el­e­ments added. But per­haps most no­tably, Parkes didn’t ac­tu­ally send those iconic im­ages: it was DSS-46 at Honey­suckle Creek. “Cer­tainly Parkes played a role,” ex­plains Glen Na­gle, who holds the twin roles of out­reach and ad­min­is­tra­tion lead and NASA op­er­a­tions sup­port of­fi­cer at CDSCC. Orig­i­nally Aus­tralia wasn’t sched­uled to be any­thing but a back-up for Apollo 11. Ul­ti­mately it was only brought in be­cause some­one in Cal­i­for­nia for­got to flip a switch. “NASA’s orig­i­nal plan was to bring back the first im­ages through their dish at Gold­stone sta­tion: you know, use an Amer­i­can dish to show Amer­i­cans walk­ing on the Moon and beat­ing the Sovi­ets and win­ning the space race,” Na­gle be­gins. “But when Gold­stone re­ceived the sig­nals from the Moon they had to re­lay them to Hous­ton, Texas, and an in­cor­rect switch setting at Gold­stone meant that the pic­ture re­ceived at Hous­ton of Neil Arm­strong about to walk on the Moon was up­side down.” The pic­ture was up­side down be­cause the cam­era was up­side down: a de­lib­er­ate choice to make the han­dle eas­ier to grasp with thick, in­su­lated gloves. The idea was that the im­ages of the his­toric mo­ment when the as­tro­nauts climbed down the lad­der would be cap­tured by the up­side-down cam­era fixed to the lan­der and flipped at Gold­stone. Once Arm­strong and Buzz Aldrin were on the sur­face they would move the cam­era to a tri­pod. The pic­ture be­ing up­side down was em­bar­rass­ing, but swiftly amended. How­ever, that was only the be­gin­ning of a se­ries of prob­lems. “The pic­ture they were re­ceiv­ing at Hous­ton was de­grad­ing along the way: blacks were very black, the whites were very white, and you couldn’t make out what was hap­pen­ing,” Na­gle con­tin­ues. “So Neil’s com­ing down the lad­der and Hous­ton wanted to find a bet­ter pic­ture, and fast.” Parkes had been cho­sen to col­lect the im­ages sent from Apollo 11, but that was thrown off be­cause Arm­strong and Aldrin had changed their sched­ule. “They’d been told to first land safely on the sur­face of the Moon. Sec­ond, get the space­craft ready for re­launch in case of emer­gency. And third, go through a six- to eight-hour eat-and-sleep pe­riod so they’d be

rested be­fore they walked on the lu­nar sur­face. And they ba­si­cally said, ‘Well, hey: we’ve just landed on the Moon, pretty ex­cited, can’t sleep, want to start ex­plor­ing as soon as pos­si­ble.’” The as­tro­nauts left the mod­ule three and a half hours ear­lier than ex­pected. “What that meant for Parkes was that the Moon hadn’t risen in their lo­cal sky yet. They had to wait about ten min­utes for the Moon to get in their dish’s beam path to get a good sig­nal. And Neil wasn’t go­ing to just hang on the lad­der wait­ing for that to hap­pen.” The Moon had risen high enough for the sta­tion at Tid­bin­billa, which would nor­mally have taken over. Ex­cept there was an­other is­sue.

“We con­stantly get vis­its from peo­ple who don’t be­lieve we landed on the Moon.”

Twenty-four hours ear­lier, a fire had dam­aged Tid­bin­billa’s elec­tri­cal sys­tem. Al­though tech­ni­cians worked around the clock to re­turn the an­tenna to work­ing or­der, NASA had al­ready swapped to its back-up plan. “So Neil’s com­ing down the lad­der. NASA looks to Gold­stone: up­side-down pic­ture, highly con­trasted, no good. Parkes: no pic­ture at all … That left Honey­suckle Creek.” The sta­tion there, the small­est of all the Apollo mis­sion tele­scopes, was only meant to get voice and data trans­mis­sions from the lu­nar mod­ule. “But on that af­ter­noon they were also car­ry­ing the TV sig­nal. And they had a great pic­ture. So NASA flicked the switch just in time, and 600 mil­lion peo­ple around the world could wit­ness Neil Arm­strong com­ing down the lad­der, putting his left foot on the Moon and say­ing those im­mor­tal words: ‘That’s one small step for man, one gi­ant leap for mankind.’” After about eight min­utes, the Moon was high enough for the more pow­er­ful Parkes tele­scope to take over. “[The Dish] doesn’t de­pict all that back and forth. And ob­vi­ously it couldn’t: it’d be five hours long with a cast of hun­dreds,” Na­gle says with a laugh. “And it’s a great film, and it made peo­ple re­mem­ber that Aus­tralia plays a role in these mis­sions.” There’s a tan­gi­ble arte­fact at the CDSCC vis­i­tor cen­tre: a 13-gram piece of moon rock (vol­canic basalt), do­nated by NASA in 1994 in grat­i­tude for Aus­tralia’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in the Apollo mis­sions. If you were hop­ing that this phys­i­cal ev­i­dence, not to men­tion the re­mark­able story of DSS-46, would con­vince Moon land­ing scep­tics that Apollo was not filmed on a Hol­ly­wood sound stage … “We get them all the time!” Na­gle sighs. “We con­stantly get vis­its from peo­ple who don’t be­lieve we landed on the Moon. And it begs the ques­tion, ‘Then why are you here?’” CDSCC, in the wake of the Cassini mis­sion, has plenty to get on with. For one thing, it’s still the pre­mier site for com­mu­ni­cat­ing with the 35 space mis­sions cur­rently oper­at­ing. “It’s only go­ing to get busier,” Na­gle ex­plains. “Now Juno [Jupiter or­biter] is the main mis­sion, and it’s likely to get a ex­ten­sion; we’ve got the Mar­tian seis­mo­log­i­cal study In­Sight launch­ing; we’ve got the James Webb Space Tele­scope head­ing on out there; and we’re gear­ing up for Ex­plo­ration Mis­sion-1, the space launch sys­tem that will even­tu­ally take hu­mans to the Moon and Mars – and next year is the So­lar Probe Plus launch.” Then, in 2020–21, “we’ll have five, maybe six mis­sions ar­riv­ing at Mars all within a one- or two-month pe­riod: NASA, the Euro­peans, the United Arab Emi­rates, Ja­pan, pos­si­bly In­dia and pos­si­bly [Elon Musk’s] SpaceX as well”. So CDSCC will have a lot of pri­or­ity-jug­gling ahead? “Yes, but we’re good at what we do.”

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