Guest Blog: Rebecca Green on Deep Space Communication

Rebecca Green is the Assistant to the Dean in Schmid College of Science at Technology at Chapman University, where the Lofty Duo work. We’ve been on task teams with Rebecca and know her to be a space nerd through and through. So we’re happy to share her family vacation story.

DSS 46 (Photo by Rebecca Green)

This summer, I was fortunate enough to include a day trip to the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex (CDSCC) as part of a family vacation. Three generations of Greens trekked into the Tidbindilla Valley—a quintessentially Australian terrain filled with bush, eucalyptus and livestock farms—to see this active complex, which is part of NASA’s Deep Space Network. It is one of three tracking facilities positioned around the globe (the others are in Goldstone, CA, and near Madrid, Spain) responsible for constant two-way radio communication with active spacecraft.

The complex opened in 1965 and has tracked some of NASA’s most recognized missions. DSS 46, a Deep Space Station antennae 26 meters in diameter, received and relayed the historic television images of Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon in 1969. That dish has since been retired, but remains a prominent fixture at the complex.

With a diameter of 70 meters, DSS 43 has the distinction of being the largest steerable parabolic antenna in the Southern Hemisphere. It has monitored data for the Mars Pathfinder and Sojourner rovers, Galileo’s journey around Jupiter, and continues to track Voyagers 1 and 2 as they travel through interstellar space. As a station, CDSCC was very involved in the recent communications from New Horizons during its Pluto approach and also during the final days of Rosetta.

The newest dish on the block is DSS 36 (I wish these things had snazzier names!). Its construction began in 2013 and it went online just days ago, when it communicated with the Mars Odyssey spacecraft on September 30! In the last few months, DSS 36 shadowed DSS 35 (similar in size), with the team in Tidbinbilla confirming its readouts. The signals from DSS 36 were processed at the complex, the data cleaned up, then sent to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). The team at JPL then sent feedback to Tidbinbilla of any adjustments that needed to be made. Like many things NASA-related, the process of building and bringing the dish online was a team effort.

Rebecca’s dad and son peer into model of Apollo-era capsule, complete with mini-astronauts.

In addition to the stunning array of antennae, the CDSCC also has a small visitor center that includes models of the Mars Curiosity Rover, an Apollo-era capsule, and displays of mission badges and astronaut food. Whatever the center lacks in space artifacts compared with some more famous museums, it makes up for with an informative series of short films about Juno, which was very timely for my family because the satellite had reached Jupiter the week before our visit.

The complex, while popular with school groups, is more research center than tourist stop. But if you don’t mind a lack of souvenirs and if you can be riveted by watching the antennae and their respective monitors longer than most people, then this is a worthy stop.

Not in Australia and curious about what the dishes are tracking? Check them out at the CDSCC website or follow them on Twitter @CanberraDSN.

New and Shiny DSS 36 (Photo be deepspace JPL webcam)


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