NASA celebrates 50 years of deep space comms

Monday, 24 March, 2014

NASA’s administrator, Charles Bolden, has visited Canberra to mark 50 years of partnership between Australia and the USA in deep space communications.

Bolden addressed a gathering at the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex, at Tidbinbilla in the ACT, on 19 March. The Deep Space Network - three tracking stations around the world - controls spacecraft travelling through the Solar System and receives the data they send back.

The event marked the beginning of the 50th year of the CDSCC, which CSIRO manages and operates on behalf of NASA.

The CDSCC’s sister stations are located at Goldstone, California, and near Madrid, in Spain. Together, the three stations provide around-the-clock contact with more than 40 spacecraft, including missions to study Mars, Venus, Jupiter, Pluto, comets, the Moon and the Sun.

Wide view of NASA's Canberra tracking station showing dishes with cows in the foreground

The Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex today. (Image: CSIRO/NASA)

In its five decades, the Deep Space Network has brought back to Earth the sight of the first Moonwalk, amazing views from the surface of Mars, and the first ‘close-ups’ of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. It sends commands to the Mars rovers, receives data from space telescopes that hunt for planets around other stars and makes observations of asteroids that could one day threaten Earth.

“The Canberra station carried the prime signals confirming the landing of the Curiosity Rover on Mars in August 2012. In 2015 it will have another starring role, receiving the first images of Pluto from the New Horizons spacecraft,” said Dr Charles Elachi, director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

“To bring back those images from Pluto, NASA is investing in this station’s future, building two more antennas at a cost of AU$110 million,” CSIRO Chief Executive Dr Megan Clark said.

There are currently three antennas in operation in Canberra: two 34 m in diameter and one 70 m in diameter. When they are not tracking spacecraft, Australian scientists can use them for their own science projects.

NASA funds the CDSCC’s operations, providing $20 million a year. Over the past 50 years it has invested more than $800 million in the CDSCC, in addition to capital costs. The station employs 92 people.

Black and white photo of men working at communications equipment

The CDSCC control room in 1969. (Image: CSIRO/NASA)

Australia’s partnership with the USA in space missions formally dates from February 1960, when the two governments signed an agreement to facilitate cooperation.

CSIRO began joint spacecraft-tracking projects with NASA in 1962, when CSIRO’s Parkes radio telescope was used to receive signals from NASA’s Mariner II spacecraft.

Tidbinbilla was chosen as the location for the Canberra facility because while it is close to Canberra, hills shield the site from radiofrequency interference from the city.

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