Yes! You can get a NASA fix whilst in Australia! Less than an hours drive south of Australia’s capital is the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex. And, just over a kilometre or so from the visitors centre, you are greeted by two signs. The first one is the ‘Welcome’ which contains a whole lot of awesome. There’s something about seeing NASA, JPL and CSIRO all together on one sign with the words ‘deep space’ that makes a nerd-fan like me all giddy… The second sign is a bit more like getting the important business end of the deal out of the way… Just like when you’re on a flight and the air hostess tells you turn off your phone and you don’t listen… yeah, well… this time… you better frickin listen..This complex isn’t a joke… it is an actual working deep space listening centre – YES. I REALLY MEAN IT when I say that it’s receiving and transmitting data to a bunch of really expensive space projects and it’s REALLY REALLY BAD to have your phone on! No seriously. It just is. Don’t be that one guy in the group who’s a jerk.
Being the badass NASA nerd that I am, I had a bit of an “Oh Shit” moment and immediately turned my phone to airplane mode. Here I am only at the frickin sign nearly losing my brain attempting to turn off my phone as quickly as possible…
Ok… so crisis adverted… Nothing like rocking up to check out some active deep space dishes only to have my stupid phone jam the irreplaceable signal coming from a satellite that just discovered life or something. Yeah.. just my luck… After about a kilometre drive, the dishes came into view. Wow….. It’s an absolutely epic scene to see all of them dotted across the hillside transmitting and receiving in all their respected glory. And you can actually see what each dish is doing from your computer or phone. NO LIE. Click here and nerd-out now.
So, as you can see from above, there’s three places around the world that are apart of the deep space network: Madrid, Goldstone and Canberra.
The Canberra location was chosen over Sydney for a number of reasons. The Blue Mountains is mostly made up of sandstone where as Canberra is granite. Granite is a hard rock that can withstand the pressure of a bazillion kilo dish.. Sydney’s topography also happened to be an issue. The valleys of the Blue Mountains are very narrow and deep. That makes it harder to get signals because you can’t go though a mountain. These dishes are also in a valley – but in a less dramatic valley than anything you’ll find in Sydney – the hills protect the dishes from any storms that may come through and helps minimise wind damage but it also protects the dishes from radio inference or RFI. I did ask if there was any trouble with snow damaging the dishes, but there’s just not enough of it to cause an issue. Now, to run such a big multi-million dollar operation as the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex, there needs to be a big enough city to support the operation. At the same time, the supporting city also needs to be small enough to minimise issues with the transmissions. If you’ve ever been to Canberra, you’d see how it’s a perfect city to be a host for the Deep Space Network!
The Canberra DSN has four active antennas and two inactive. The inactive dishes are the historic Honeysuckle dish, DSS-46, and the yet to be operational DSS-36 due in October 2016!)
The image of the dish pictured above is DSS-43. This is actually the largest dish in the Southern Hemisphere. It’s got a whopping diameter of 70 meters and around 100 meters on the parabolic curvature. This dish is big enough to play a game of Aussie rules! But, that’s not what makes this dish completely badass… oh this is cool… The good old smart engineers at NASA have somehow made this dish float on a film of oil the thickness of one slice of paper. Yes, you read that correctly. This is a pretty sensitive dish and for good reason. DSS-43 is also the most powerful dish in the Southern Hemisphere. This deep space dish just wins at life! It was completed in 1972 in time for the Apollo 17 mission to the moon. Built originally as a 64 metre dish, it was expanded in 1986 to 70 metres for the Voyager 2 encounter with Uranus. Oh and guess what… Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 still talk to this dish and what’s even cooler is, Voyager 1 is 18.5 light-hours from Earth. How’s that for “sciencing the shit” out of space.
There’s one dish at the communication complex that actually made me feel really proud and emotional. DSS-46 is the dish that actually saved NASA’s butt.
It was originally located at the Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station about 40 kilometres south of Canberra. This dish was built in 1967 for the Apollo missions. It now calls the Canberra DSN home.
Now, I hope you’re sitting down for this, because this is one heck of an awesome story. Astronauts, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were like giddy little schoolgirls going on a space excursion for the very first time. NASA, being the proud and responsible parent, suggested that the boys should have a bit of dinner and a sleep before their big first day on the Moon. Um.. yeah… about that… Neil and Buzz were like… WE’RE ON THE FRICKIN MOON – and with that being said, they decided to don their practical yet slimming space suits and go for a long walk on the Moon like naughty school kids.
This created a bit of a headache for NASA. They wanted to use their dishes in California to demonstrate the power of American ingenuity by transmitting the first ever vision of humans on the Moon. Yeah, that didn’t happen… Buzz and Neil gave mission control a heads up about their intentions but when the signal was received and sent to Houston…. guess what… they were doing it all wrong. The picture they got was upside down! An incorrect switch setting and an upside down, low-quality signal sent to Mission Control. This wasn’t the most ideal way to transmit the first humans on the Moon to the world.
And…. cue the Australians!
NASA is freaking out… But… the dish people at Canberra DSN, Honeysuckle and the CSIRO’s Parkes Radio Telescope were ready for the broadcast transmission. As luck and drama would have it, the day before the Moon landing the Canberra dish HAD A FRICKIN FIRE. (Seriously guys – why isn’t this a movie!) So, they call in their best engineer to fix the problem. This big guy had to fit in a tiny spot to fix all the problems of the dish. Guess what – this guy’s got claustrophobia. No Lie. The engineer who’s sweating it out… fixes the problem – happy days… but NASA could also use the Parkes 64 metre dish to get the TV. Neil wants to go all ‘walkies’ on the Moon early and at this point, the Moon hasn’t even risen high enough above the horizon there yet, so there’s NO SIGNAL!
As the ultimate problem solvers of the universe, NASA looks to the little 26 metre dish at Honeysuckle and their awesome team. They finally had a picture, and it was one heck of a great badass picture – and the right way up!
Honeysuckle then broadcasts Naughty Neil and Baddie Buzz’s walk for TV. The whole “one small step for Man”moment is FINALLY live across Australia and I’m envisioning NASA’s response to what just went down with the Astronauts on the Moon:
So, this all went down before the days of the Internet and it takes a few moments for the signal to then be broadcast to the other side of the planet. TV networks actually had to film the vision though a camera pointed off a monitor. Think about that. The Americans were watching the moon landing taped off a monitor! None the wiser. So, even with the signal travelling at the speed of light, it turns out that Australians got the broadcast a few milliseconds before the Americans…. and the rest of the world. THAT’S FIRST! How cool is history!
I think we all need to calm down a bit after that amazing NASA story. So here’s some important factoids that are worth a mention: There are three 34-metre antennas that each handle between 3-10 spacecraft each per day. These dishes are little workhorses transmitting and receiving data from deep space. But what is deep space really? Deep space means everything from the Moon and BEYOND.
There are over 40 robotic spacecraft, representing 27 spacefaring nations around the world. That’s a heck of a lot of data that these cool little dishes collect.
If you would like to space out even deeper and find out how the dishes at Canberra DSN work or just go on some epic adventures, follow Taraustralis on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook or subscribe to Taraustralis.com!