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  • richardmitnick 11:15 am on March 18, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: "Space Is Very Big. Some of Its New Explorers Will Be Tiny", , , , , NASA MarCO cubesats, NASA’s Deep Space Network,   

    From The New York Times: “Space Is Very Big. Some of Its New Explorers Will Be Tiny” 

    New York Times

    From The New York Times

    March 18, 2019
    Shannon Stirone

    The success of NASA’s MarCO mission means that so-called cubesats likely will travel to distant reaches of our solar system.

    NASA JPL MarCO cubesat replica

    Last year, two satellites the size of cereal boxes sped toward Mars as though they were on an invisible track in space. Officially called MarCO A and MarCO B, engineers at NASA had nicknamed them Wall-E and EVE, after the cartoon robots from the Pixar movie.

    They were just as endearing and vulnerable as their namesakes. The satellites, known as cubesats, were sent to watch over NASA’s larger InSight spacecraft as it attempted a perilous landing on the surface of Mars at the end of November.

    NASA/Mars InSight Lander

    Constellations of small satellites like the MarCOs now orbit Earth, used by scientists, private companies, high school students and even governments seeking low-budget eyes in the skies. But never before had a cubesat traveled 90 million miles into space.

    On Nov. 26, as the InSight lander touched down, its status was swiftly relayed back to Earth by the two trailing cubesats. The operation was a success, and the performance of the MarCO satellites may change the way missions operate, enabling cubesats to become deep space travelers in their own right.

    NASA engineers weren’t sure what to expect when the MarCO mission launched last May. “I think it’s opened up so many doors and kind of shattered expectations,” said Anne Marinan, a systems engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “The fact that we actually got as far as we did with both satellites working was huge.”

    About a month after dropping InSight onto Mars, NASA lost contact with the MarCOs. The agency may attempt to wake them up someday, but for now Wall-E and EVE are silently roaming the solar system, proof of a new space exploration technology that almost never got to the launchpad.

    Uncanceling the cubesat program

    The MarCO mission was canceled repeatedly. After all, the primary goal of NASA’s InSight mission was to land a stationary spacecraft on Mars and listen for marsquakes, giving scientists an improved picture of the red planet’s internal makeup.

    And multiple spacecraft orbiting Mars already relay information from its surface back to Earth. The cubesats wouldn’t play a direct role in InSight’s success or failure, so it was a challenge to persuade NASA to support a nonessential program using unproven technology.

    The MarCO team fought hard, prevailing at last with the argument that at a cost of only $18 million, the idea was worth taking a chance on. If these two tiny satellites worked well, it would not only mean that similar spacecraft could support big planetary missions in the future, but also that cubesats might carry instruments of their own.

    Proving the technology’s reach could stretch NASA’s funding, the engineers said, while creating opportunities for wider exploration of the solar system.

    As InSight safely touched down on Mars, the MarCOs were zipping past the planet, collecting readings from the landing and relaying them home more swiftly than the satellites currently orbiting Mars could.

    “We had some astonishing statistics,” said John Baker, manager of the SmallSat program at J.P.L. “We ended up getting 97 percent of all the InSight data back. And that’s because we had two small spacecraft at exactly the right position over the planet to receive the signals.”

    A picture taken by the InSight lander on Mars’s surface in December.Credit NASA, via Associated Press

    Mars, seen by the MarCO B cubesat, about 4,700 miles from the planet in November. Credit Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

    From left, John Baker, Anne Marinan and Andrew Klesh, engineers who led the MarCO mission at J.P.L. Credit Rozette Rago for The New York Times.

    Having custom cubesats overhead meant that NASA did not need to use other Martian satellites or worry about their alignment at the time of landing. If future missions tow along their own MarCOs, teams back on Earth may always know how their spacecraft are doing.

    The creativity of their design contributed to the cubesats’ success. Before they began constructing the MarCOs, the team made 3D models and used yarn to plan how best to run the guts and wiring inside. The MacGyver-like improvisation resulted in part from the program’s low budget.

    The cubesats run on solar power, and their propellant is fire extinguisher fluid. Lining the front of both spacecraft are eight pen-width nozzles that spray cold gas. The cameras onboard are off-the-shelf, and the radio is similar to that in an iPhone.

    But it wasn’t all easy. On their six-month journey to Mars, both cubesats occasionally lost contact with Earth. A couple of months after launch, MarCO B sprang a fuel leak and started spinning out of control. The team thought they’d lost it.

    “Management is slowly encroaching upon the room,” said Andrew Klesh, MarCO’s chief engineer, describing the scene. “We started to look at all the data. We broke apart the problem, and within about 24 hours we had MarCO B back under control.”

    Just a day before landing, MarCO B stopped communicating with Earth again. The cubesat came back online just in time. The InSight probe moved into the Martian landing phase that NASA officials know as “seven minutes of terror,” and both spacecraft spoke to Earth the entire time.

    The future is getting smaller

    NASA JPL Misson Control. Rozette Rago for The New York Times

    While inexpensive cubesats like the MarCOs may serve as real-time communication relays for future deep-space missions, NASA has more adventurous goals in mind, some of which were hinted at in last week’s budget proposals by the Trump administration.

    “When we have big spacecraft, you don’t want to necessarily take it into a very risky situation,” said Mr. Baker. “But you can take an inexpensive probe and send it down to search or to get up close to something and examine it.”

    Mr. Baker and others at J.P.L. are currently working on planetary cubesat missions. One proposal, nicknamed Cupid’s Arrow, envisions using the spacecraft to study the opaque atmosphere of Venus.

    In other proposals, the next iteration of interplanetary cubesats would be scouts deployed by larger spacecraft studying worlds that could be hospitable to life. They could be sent into the plumes of Enceladus, Saturn’s icy moon, which ejects water vapor into space. Or cubesats could descend toward the surface of Europa, the ocean moon of Jupiter.

    “These spacecraft will allow us to act as the Star Trek probes to go down to the surface of challenging worlds where we might not be able to take the risk of a much larger mission,” said Dr. Klesh.

    When NASA’s next-generation rocket, the Space Launch System, heads for its first practice orbit around the moon (a launch which is facing delays), it will carry 13 cubesats, some as tests of technology and others as science experiments.

    NASA Space Launch System depiction

    One cubesat, for example, will be tasked with mapping sources of water on the moon for future human exploration. Another, called NEA Scout, is being designed by Dr. Marinan to monitor nearby asteroids that could pose potential hazards to our planet.

    Private companies are working on shrinking scientific instruments to be placed aboard the next generation of Earth-orbiting satellites. And as instruments become smaller, the options for singular scientific missions in deep space become greater, as does the potential for whole fleets of MarCO-like satellites.

    Toughening tiny travelers

    But much work remains before more cubesats can travel beyond the moon. The challenges that come with operating full-size planetary missions apply to small satellites, too.

    If you want to go to the Jovian system, you need heavy radiation shielding. If you want to go to Saturn, you need more efficient solar panels and ways to keep the tiny spacecraft warm.

    “We think we can actually send a small spacecraft all the way to Jupiter,” said Dr. Baker. “The problem is, I have to come up with a way of automating the onboard spacecraft so that it can fly itself to Jupiter or you only have to talk to it once a month. Or we create a way for it to only radio home when it needs help.”

    These are the kinds of engineering challenges the MarCO team worked to overcome with the journey to Mars.

    “It’s really opened a door of possibilities now that we have shown that this has actually worked,” said Dr. Marinan. “It’s not an impossible concept anymore”

    The engineers even managed to get around one of the tricker issues with how to collect data and talk to the cubesats. Typically, when a spacecraft calls home, it will spend several hours using NASA’s Deep Space Network, the very expensive phone system for calls beyond the moon.

    NASA Deep Space Network

    NASA Deep Space Network Madrid Spain

    NASA Deep Space Network dish, Goldstone, CA, USA

    NASA Canberra, AU, Deep Space Network

    But these long-distance conversations weren’t an option for the MarCOs. So the team at J.P.L. created new ways of monitoring the spacecraft that allowed them to collect in a one-hour period the data that would usually take eight hours.

    “MarCO is a herald of new things to come,” said Dr. Klesh. “Not necessarily better things, but different, and a new way of space exploration that will complement all the larger missions that we do.”

    As it passed Mars, MarCO B returned the first photo ever taken from a cubesat in deep space. It revealed the copper-colored entirety of Mars in the dark of space, and a small section of the spacecraft’s antenna.

    The angle of the photo was intentional — not only to show where we’ve been, but a hint at where these tiny wanderers could go next.

    See the full article here .


    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    Stem Education Coalition

  • richardmitnick 9:37 am on December 10, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , , , , , NASA’s Deep Space Network, ,   

    From JPL-Caltech: “NASA’s Voyager 2 Probe Enters Interstellar Space” 

    NASA JPL Banner

    From JPL-Caltech

    Dec. 10, 2018

    Dwayne Brown
    Headquarters, Washington
    202-358-1726 / 301-286-6284

    Karen Fox
    Headquarters, Washington

    Calla Cofield
    Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

    This illustration shows the position of NASA’s Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 probes, outside of the heliosphere, a protective bubble created by the Sun that extends well past the orbit of Pluto.

    For the second time in history, a human-made object has reached the space between the stars. NASA’s Voyager 2 probe now has exited the heliosphere – the protective bubble of particles and magnetic fields created by the Sun.

    NASA/Voyager 2

    Members of NASA’s Voyager team will discuss the findings at a news conference at 11 a.m. EST (8 a.m. PST) today at the meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in Washington. The news conference will stream live on the agency’s website.

    Comparing data from different instruments aboard the trailblazing spacecraft, mission scientists determined the probe crossed the outer edge of the heliosphere on Nov. 5. This boundary, called the heliopause, is where the tenuous, hot solar wind meets the cold, dense interstellar medium. Its twin, Voyager 1, crossed this boundary in 2012, but Voyager 2 carries a working instrument that will provide first-of-its-kind observations of the nature of this gateway into interstellar space.

    NASA/Voyager 1

    Voyager 2 now is slightly more than 11 billion miles (18 billion kilometers) from Earth. Mission operators still can communicate with Voyager 2 as it enters this new phase of its journey, but information – moving at the speed of light – takes about 16.5 hours to travel from the spacecraft to Earth. By comparison, light traveling from the Sun takes about eight minutes to reach Earth.

    Artist’s concept of Voyager 2 with 9 facts listed around it. Image Credit: NASA

    The most compelling evidence of Voyager 2’s exit from the heliosphere came from its onboard Plasma Science Experiment (PLS), an instrument that stopped working on Voyager 1 in 1980, long before that probe crossed the heliopause. Until recently, the space surrounding Voyager 2 was filled predominantly with plasma flowing out from our Sun. This outflow, called the solar wind, creates a bubble – the heliosphere – that envelopes the planets in our solar system. The PLS uses the electrical current of the plasma to detect the speed, density, temperature, pressure and flux of the solar wind. The PLS aboard Voyager 2 observed a steep decline in the speed of the solar wind particles on Nov. 5. Since that date, the plasma instrument has observed no solar wind flow in the environment around Voyager 2, which makes mission scientists confident the probe has left the heliosphere.

    Animated gif showing the plasma data. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

    “Working on Voyager makes me feel like an explorer, because everything we’re seeing is new,” said John Richardson, principal investigator for the PLS instrument and a principal research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. “Even though Voyager 1 crossed the heliopause in 2012, it did so at a different place and a different time, and without the PLS data. So we’re still seeing things that no one has seen before.”

    In addition to the plasma data, Voyager’s science team members have seen evidence from three other onboard instruments – the cosmic ray subsystem, the low energy charged particle instrument and the magnetometer – that is consistent with the conclusion that Voyager 2 has crossed the heliopause. Voyager’s team members are eager to continue to study the data from these other onboard instruments to get a clearer picture of the environment through which Voyager 2 is traveling.

    “There is still a lot to learn about the region of interstellar space immediately beyond the heliopause,” said Ed Stone, Voyager project scientist based at Caltech in Pasadena, California.

    Together, the two Voyagers provide a detailed glimpse of how our heliosphere interacts with the constant interstellar wind flowing from beyond. Their observations complement data from NASA’s Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX), a mission that is remotely sensing that boundary. NASA also is preparing an additional mission – the upcoming Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe (IMAP), due to launch in 2024 – to capitalize on the Voyagers’ observations.

    “Voyager has a very special place for us in our heliophysics fleet,” said Nicola Fox, director of the Heliophysics Division at NASA Headquarters. “Our studies start at the Sun and extend out to everything the solar wind touches. To have the Voyagers sending back information about the edge of the Sun’s influence gives us an unprecedented glimpse of truly uncharted territory.”

    While the probes have left the heliosphere, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 have not yet left the solar system, and won’t be leaving anytime soon. The boundary of the solar system is considered to be beyond the outer edge of the Oort Cloud, a collection of small objects that are still under the influence of the Sun’s gravity.

    Oort Cloud NASA

    The width of the Oort Cloud is not known precisely, but it is estimated to begin at about 1,000 astronomical units (AU) from the Sun and to extend to about 100,000 AU. One AU is the distance from the Sun to Earth. It will take about 300 years for Voyager 2 to reach the inner edge of the Oort Cloud and possibly 30,000 years to fly beyond it.

    The Voyager probes are powered using heat from the decay of radioactive material, contained in a device called a radioisotope thermal generator (RTG). The power output of the RTGs diminishes by about four watts per year, which means that various parts of the Voyagers, including the cameras on both spacecraft, have been turned off over time to manage power.

    “I think we’re all happy and relieved that the Voyager probes have both operated long enough to make it past this milestone,” said Suzanne Dodd, Voyager project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. “This is what we’ve all been waiting for. Now we’re looking forward to what we’ll be able to learn from having both probes outside the heliopause.”

    Voyager 2 launched in 1977, 16 days before Voyager 1, and both have traveled well beyond their original destinations. The spacecraft were built to last five years and conduct close-up studies of Jupiter and Saturn. However, as the mission continued, additional flybys of the two outermost giant planets, Uranus and Neptune, proved possible. As the spacecraft flew across the solar system, remote-control reprogramming was used to endow the Voyagers with greater capabilities than they possessed when they left Earth. Their two-planet mission became a four-planet mission. Their five-year lifespans have stretched to 41 years, making Voyager 2 NASA’s longest running mission.

    The Voyager story has impacted not only generations of current and future scientists and engineers, but also Earth’s culture, including film, art and music. Each spacecraft carries a Golden Record of Earth sounds, pictures and messages.

    NASA Voyager Golden Record

    Since the spacecraft could last billions of years, these circular time capsules could one day be the only traces of human civilization.

    Voyager’s mission controllers communicate with the probes using NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN), a global system for communicating with interplanetary spacecraft. The DSN consists of three clusters of antennas in Goldstone, California; Madrid, Spain; and Canberra, Australia.

    NASA Deep Space Network dish, Goldstone, CA, USA

    NASA Canberra, AU, Deep Space Network

    NASA Deep Space Network Madrid Spain

    The Voyager Interstellar Mission is a part of NASA’s Heliophysics System Observatory, sponsored by the Heliophysics Division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. JPL built and operates the twin Voyager spacecraft. NASA’s DSN, managed by JPL, is an international network of antennas that supports interplanetary spacecraft missions and radio and radar astronomy observations for the exploration of the solar system and the universe. The network also supports selected Earth-orbiting missions. The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, Australia’s national science agency, operates both the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex, part of the DSN, and the Parkes Observatory, which NASA has been using to downlink data from Voyager 2 since Nov. 8.

    For more information about the Voyager mission, visit:


    More information about NASA’s Heliophysics missions is available online at:


    See the full article here .


    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

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    NASA JPL Campus

    Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is a federally funded research and development center and NASA field center located in the San Gabriel Valley area of Los Angeles County, California, United States. Although the facility has a Pasadena postal address, it is actually headquartered in the city of La Cañada Flintridge, on the northwest border of Pasadena. JPL is managed by the nearby California Institute of Technology (Caltech) for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The Laboratory’s primary function is the construction and operation of robotic planetary spacecraft, though it also conducts Earth-orbit and astronomy missions. It is also responsible for operating NASA’s Deep Space Network.

    Caltech Logo

    NASA image

  • richardmitnick 8:38 am on September 27, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , Few Australians know the unique role the country plays in the global space network, NASA’s Deep Space Network, ,   

    From CSIROscope: “Few Australians know the unique role the country plays in the global space network” 

    CSIRO bloc


    27 September 2017
    Dr. Larry Marshall

    CSIRO leases time from NovaSAR satellite for images of SA bushfires, floods. No image credit.

    In 1969, I sat on the floor of my classroom watching, spellbound, as Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the Moon. I never dreamt that a few decades later, I’d be one of the first to see images from Pluto as part of the critical role CSIRO’s team at the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex plays in NASA’s New Horizons and Cassini missions.

    NASA Canberra, AU, Deep Space Network

    How could a kid sitting in a classroom in Sydney, miles away from the rest of the world, believe Australia had such an important part to play in our exploration of space?

    Today few schoolchildren — in fact, probably few adults as well — know the unique role Australia plays in the global space network. Australia is positioned perfectly to look up into the centre of the galaxy — something you can’t do from many other parts of the world. That outstanding location and our world-class capability in space science underpins a phenomenal contribution to international space programs.

    CSIRO and NASA’s partnership stretches back more than 50 years, grounded in our world-class infrastructure and scientists at Canberra and Parkes, and fuelled into the future by our shared ambition to push the boundaries of exploration to benefit life back on earth.

    CSIRO/Parkes Observatory, located 20 kilometres north of the town of Parkes, New South Wales, Australia

    From November, CSIRO will control all NASA’s deep space assets worldwide for about a third of every day, using the ‘follow the sun’ protocol, as well as communicating with European and Indian spacecraft. It’s a rare day in our control centres when we don’t talk to partners on every part of the globe.

    But beyond the beauty, the mystery, and the innate lure of the vast universe that surrounds us — what’s in it for Australia to invest in space?

    For a start, if you’re reading this online, chances are you’re using WiFi, invented by CSIRO and using an algorithm we developed in radio astronomy work. But what about implications for the environment? On a daily basis, many dedicated people across CSIRO deliver crucial insights through Earth observation.

    They work closely with more than a dozen international space organisations to turn big data into insights that solve challenges ranging from disaster prevention, bushfires, floods and spills, to biosecurity threats.

    We partner with the European Space Agency (ESA) to access their international satellite data, and with NASA to monitor places from the Great Barrier Reef to the Great Australian Bight, to the Lake Eyre Basin to the Adelaide Hills.

    And today, here in Adelaide, we were thrilled to announce CSIRO has purchased a 10 per cent share of the NovaSAR Earth observation satellite, giving Australian scientists first usage rights when it flies over Australia and Southeast Asia, strengthening our ability to understand our environment and prepare for our future, and for the first time, giving Australian scientists the ability to control an imaging satellite.

    UrtheCast said that SSTL’s experience with the NovaSAR synthetic aperture radar satellite (above) was a key reason it selected the company to work on its Generation 3 satellite constellation. Credit: SSTL

    But you don’t have to be a space organisation to be part of CSIRO’s space team.

    We work with Australian businesses up and down the space supply chain who benefit economically.

    For example, our partnership with EMC, a small business based in Perth, is about to deliver the world’s first solar power solution suitable for a radioastronomy site at our Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) in Murchison, WA.

    SKA/ASKAP radio telescope at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO) in Mid West region of Western Australia

    This same site will soon be the Australian home to the world’s largest telescope.

    SKA Square Kilometer Array

    The project has been a brilliant result for EMC, which grew from a workforce of 10 to over 100 during the project. They’re now positioned to take on global radio astronomy energy tenders — and beyond.

    Building on our long, strong history of partnerships with international space organisations, we’re seeing more deeply into the Universe, in more detail into our own environment, and sharing the benefits across our economy.

    So what’s next? Australian science created the coatings on every Boeing aircraft, and as we go to Mars don’t be surprised to see Aussie innovation along for the ride.

    CSIRO collaborates with every Australian research institution, with the nation’s space advantage driven by this network of brilliant minds, working collaboratively to deliver the best outcomes for our nation.

    Our opportunity is as unlimited as space itself.

    See the full article here .

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    STEM Icon

    Stem Education Coalition

    SKA/ASKAP radio telescope at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO) in Mid West region of Western Australia

    So what can we expect these new radio projects to discover? We have no idea, but history tells us that they are almost certain to deliver some major surprises.

    Making these new discoveries may not be so simple. Gone are the days when astronomers could just notice something odd as they browse their tables and graphs.

    Nowadays, astronomers are more likely to be distilling their answers from carefully-posed queries to databases containing petabytes of data. Human brains are just not up to the job of making unexpected discoveries in these circumstances, and instead we will need to develop “learning machines” to help us discover the unexpected.

    With the right tools and careful insight, who knows what we might find.

    CSIRO campus

    CSIRO, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, is Australia’s national science agency and one of the largest and most diverse research agencies in the world.

  • richardmitnick 10:51 am on August 30, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , CSIRO Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex Australia, Jonny Weeks, NASA’s Deep Space Network,   

    From CSIRO blog: “Space whisperers: the Aussies guiding Cassini’s suicide mission to Saturn” 

    CSIRO bloc

    CSIRO blog

    30 August 2017
    Jonny Weeks

    The grand finale of NASA’s epic 20-year mission to the ringed planet will be overseen from a deep space centre near Canberra. A photo essay by Jonny Weeks.

    On 15 September 2017 at about 10pm AEST, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft will plunge deep into the hostile atmosphere of Saturn on a historic but suicidal course. It’s the grand finale of a 20-year mission which has revolutionised our understanding of the solar system and sent home more than a quarter of a million stunning images of Saturn and its moons.

    Cassini’s instruments will be running to the last, capturing every possible byte of data from its closest encounter with the ringed planet before it ultimately evaporates.

    Some 1.2bn km away, in a valley just outside Canberra, Glen Nagle and his colleagues will be listening intently to what he calls the “whispers” from deep space. “I’m going to be here for 24 hours and I won’t be sleeping,” he says enthusiastically.

    Nagle (pictured above) works at the the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex, aka Tidbinbilla tracking station, home to four antennas which help track and command the many spacecraft in our solar system.

    CSIRO Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex, Australia

    Run by CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency, but funded by NASA, Tidbinbilla is one of just three stations in NASA’s Deep Space Network (the others are in California and Madrid) and it is here that Cassini’s final radio signals will be received and relayed to a global audience.

    “We’re going to be responsible for capturing Cassini’s last breath of data,” Nagle says. “It’ll be a bittersweet moment.

    “NASA can’t do it without us because the other stations are completely facing in the wrong direction. Saturn will be in our skies, our field of view. It’s literally the way the planets have aligned.”

    Opened in 1965, Tidbinbilla is a serene station enveloped by national parks. It’s a place where the low hum of the moving antennas and the occasional paging announcements are the only sounds that punctuate the silence.

    The dishes look surprisingly small from a distance, dwarfed by nature itself, but up close their scale is imposing. The largest is 70m in diameter and 109m across its curvature – “you could throw a football field into it,” Nagle says – and weighs about 4,000 tonnes. They are almost millimetre-perfect parabolic surfaces.

    Each dish acts as both a gigantic ear and a gigantic loudspeaker, telling the spacecrafts how to behave, ensuring their health and collecting their data. The dishes operate night and day, whether or not the skies are clear to the naked eye.

    The 70-metre antenna at CSIRO Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex

    “At the present time we, Earth, have about 30 missions in the solar system, so about 40 individual spacecraft,” Nagle says. “We communicate with them using radio waves – the invisible part of the electromagnetic spectrum.

    “Spacecraft receive and transmit data as digital ones and zeros. It’s the same way that your phone receives a radio signal before your phone’s software turns it back into a picture, it’s just those ones and zeros. We don’t know whether the stream we’re receiving is a beautiful picture or some instrument data or some engineering data or whatever it is.”

    The DSN doesn’t handle satellites in Earth’s orbit – the kind that are used for mobile communications, observation, weather prediction, GPS and so on. “They’re literally too close for us,” Nagle explains. “We just talk to the missions that have headed out across the solar system.”

    The furthest of them, Voyager 1, is so far from Earth that it seems a minor miracle its signal can be heard at all.

    NASA/Voyager 1

    For Nagle, a self-confessed space buff since childhood who is now the outreach and administration lead at Tidbinbilla, it’s a thrilling thought.

    “Right now Voyager 1 is roughly 20.7bn km away and moving further away by about 1.4million km every day,” he says. “That’s about four and a quarter times further away than Pluto. So it’s way out there. It takes over 30 hours to get a signal there and back.

    “To give you some idea of what that signal is like now: Voyager transmits at around 19 watts, about half the power it’s taking to run the lightbulb in your fridge. So imagine already trying to see half your fridge light from four and quarter times as far away as Pluto – you’re not going to see it.

    “And it gets even smaller because as that signal travels across that 20bn km of space it spreads out, it becomes thinner and more diffuse.

    “In fact,” he adds excitedly, “the signal we get is equivalent to only about one twenty billionth – billionth with a b! – of the amount of power that’s generated by a typical watch battery. But you’re still getting the information, the ones and zeros, and even though it’s very weak all of the information is still there.”

    Up on the dish

    Michael Murray (right) fixing the gears on DSS35.

    Up high on dish number DSS35, there’s a minor problem which needs to be fixed. The ball gears are not meeting correctly and the dish’s ability to slowly pivot – as it must do to track the craft while the Earth rotates – is being compromised.

    “Currently we’re inserting a bit of solder to measure the backlash in the gear,” says antenna technician Michael Murray. “We measure the crush on the solder and that’ll give us an idea of what the backlash is.”

    As with everything in space exploration, precision counts. And yet, oddly, just a few metres away there’s a kink in the safety rail where a section has been cut away and awkwardly repositioned.

    John Howell, the survey electronics technician, laughs. “When they built this antenna they realised the rail was in the way and they had to cut this out [for the dish to be able to fully rotate]. We do months and months of testing when things are first built, we move everything very slowly, and when they got to this bit they realised, ‘Oh no, it’s not going to work.’ We blame the engineers.”

    John Howell, survey electronics technician, pointing out the mistake in a handrail. It had to be repositioned when the engineers realised the dish could not rotate fully.

    Howell has been employed at Tidbinbilla by CSIRO for the past 15 years – the same duration as Nagle – but, unlike his colleague, his knowledge of the science is more cursory.

    “People ask me what are they tracking today and I say, ‘I’ve got no idea.’ As long as my things point to where they’ve got to point … I mean, when we’ve got a major ‘level one support’ happening like the Mars rovers landing or Cassini then it’s quite interesting, but apart from that some of the scientific stuff is way above my head.”

    He adds: “But I am interested in the Voyager probes. It takes forever to get a signal to them and back at the speed of sound” – “light,” Nagle interrupts apologetically – “Oh sorry, the speed of light!” Howell continues.

    “They left when I was still in primary school. I find it hard to believe we can talk to something that far away. It blows my mind.”

    A view to the north of the station from DSS35.

    Coiled springs

    In the recently built control centre – a place Matthew Purdie, senior link controller, describes as “the heart of the station” – activity is decidedly slow. You might imagine a hive of scientists huddled around monitors awaiting fresh data but in fact there’s only one CSIRO scientist based at Tidbinbilla and his research role is detached from the day-to-day communications performed on behalf of NASA and the other space superpowers. NASA’s scientists are located at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the US.

    Purdie and his team of controllers are patiently monitoring banks of screens, waiting for the rare occasion when a command fails or for the more alarming news that a craft has become inoperable or gone missing. Occasionally they have to call the JPL to tell them their craft are sick.

    Matthew Purdie, senior link controller, in the control centre.

    “We refer to ourselves as coiled springs,” Purdie says. “We’re sort of employed to handle things when they go wrong. Most of the time we’re looking for green on our screens. If everything’s green we’re good; if it goes orange or red we’re in trouble.”

    Behind him, a box of on one of his screens turns orange. “Oh, that’s nothing to worry about,” he says assuredly. “That’s a ‘carrier out of lock’. It’s spacecraft 74. We lost the signal but it was an expected loss of signal because the craft occultated – it went behind Mars.

    “Right now I’m on antenna DSS34, so I’m tracking three spacecraft: MRO [Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter], Maven and Mars Odyssey. I’d have to get out the book to tell you exactly what each spacecraft is doing. We know the technical side of our spacecraft, what bit rates they use, command frequencies and all that stuff, but quite often we forget why they’re there.”

    Purdie knows plenty about Cassini, however, and has been on duty for some of its recent dives – the series of 22 daring orbits between Saturn and its rings which have given the craft a unique perspective on the planet and the surrounding bands of dust, rock and ice.

    Disappointingly, Purdie already knows his shift patterns will cause him to miss the finale next month. He’s tempted to come to work anyway.

    “I like being part of history and science,” he says. “I like the fact that I’ve been here for landings and launchings and things like that. Years ago they used to go around to each of the stations and ask for a ‘Go? No go?’, so you’d have to say, ‘DSS45 is a go!’ That was so cool, I loved doing that. They don’t do that any more.”

    A close-up view of the largest dish on site showing the parabolic surface. The tall cone-like structure in the middle is the transmitter-receiver system. The cone is the height of a five-storey building.

    One giant leap

    Australia’s involvement in space exploration is six decades old and even though Nagle thinks “Australia doesn’t see itself as a space-faring nation” it has played a critical role in some of the most inspiring moments in the history of humankind.

    “The dish out the front is the one from Honeysuckle Creek that received and relayed to the whole world the first pictures of Neil Armstrong walking on the moon in 1969,” Nagle explains. He must have regaled people with the full story a thousand times or more, yet he makes it sound anything but tiresome.

    “NASA’s original intention was to use their dish in California to transmit the pictures to the world and show America winning the space race,” he says. “When Neil came out of the spacecraft the first thing he needed to do was switch on a camera which was mounted upside down so that he could later pick it up with his big, gloved hand. NASA were going to flip the picture but the video technician called in sick that day and his backup forgot.

    “Eventually they flipped it but it was highly contrasted because the signal was going to ground somewhere. Mission control couldn’t show that to the world and Neil wasn’t going to wait.”

    At the critical moment, Honeysuckle Creek had a perfect image. “When NASA saw that,” Nagle continues, “they flipped the switch to Australia and 600 million people around the world watched Neil come down the ladder, put his left foot on the surface of the moon and say, ‘One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.’

    “I was an eight-year-old kid sitting in front of the television, glued to the screen, watching humans walk on the moon in glorious black and white. I had no idea that 40 years later I’d be working at the place where I can look out of my window at the dish that brought me those pictures.”

    Greg Boyd, senior network administrator, at his desk at Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex.

    That enduring sense of wonder is shared by Greg Boyd, the senior network administrator at Tidbinbilla.

    “I love the science,” he says. “When I first started I was into everything. We used to have these things called twixes, well before we had emails. They were advisories about what was happening and I’d be reading all this groovy stuff that’s going on.

    “As time goes on you become blase. Not jaded; blase. But I’m doing my dream job and I’ve been doing it for the last 25 years. Where else can a boy from Australia work for NASA and really be critically involved in their missions? This is it.”

    The night’s sky over Tidbinbilla showing the Milky Way.

    As night falls over Tidbinbilla, low-lying clouds initially block the views overhead. A group of kangaroos gathers by the perimeter fence, intrigued by the faint, eerie noises emanating from the site.

    By 3am the clouds have finally dissipated and the vast, star-spangled sky is simply breathtaking. Somewhere out there, Cassini is looping the loop between Saturn and its rings.

    In its lifetime Cassini and its accompanying probe, Huygens, have revealed many of the secrets of the Saturnian system: how the particles that make up Saturn’s rings range in size from smaller than a grain of sand to as large as mountains; how Titan, one of the moons, has prebiotic chemistry as well as rain, rivers, lakes and seas; how icy plumes of water are spraying upwards from “tiger stripe” fractures on Enceladus, an otherwise frozen moon.

    It has also witnessed giant hurricanes at both of Saturn’s poles and captured the first complete view of the north polar hexagon – not bad for a one megapixel camera. The finale should reveal yet more about the interior of the planet as the craft measures its gravity and magnetic field.

    The decision to hurl Cassini into Saturn’s deadly, gaseous atmosphere next month has been made through necessity and responsibility. The craft has run out of fuel and contains a nuclear battery; NASA’s scientists fear it might contaminate one of the surrounding moons should it crash into them.

    “We have to dispose of the spacecraft safely,” says deputy project scientist Scott Edgington, who’s based in California, “because Titan and Enceladus have been shown to be places where there are conditions for habitability, conditions that we think are appropriate for life.

    “So our navigators came up with this series of grand finale orbits, flying through the gap between the planet and the rings, and eventually ending in Saturn’s atmosphere. When the scientists saw that plan they were like, ‘Wow, this is unexplored territory, we’re going to learn so many new things.’ So starting April this year we entered into the grand finale orbits. It’s hard to believe we’re almost done.”

    Of the final descent, he says: “Think of it as we’re sniffing the atmosphere. It will set the ground truth for past measurements and even future measurements. That’s something I’m really looking forward to.”

    A ‘stacked’ star-trail photograph. Created from 162 individual exposures and made over 81 minutes, it shows the progression of the stars around the south celestial pole.

    Life and death

    At Tidbinbilla the following morning, the anticipation in the visitors centre is just as palpable. “It’s this generation’s Voyager,” says Jonathan Kent, a self-proclaimed “hack astronomer”. “I think it’s capturing people’s minds and hearts and reinvigorating our interest in space.”

    Ten-year-old Scout Miller is proof. She’s at the centre with her family, and talk of the discoveries made by Cassini and Juno – NASA’s mission to Jupiter which delivered a tranche of close-up images of the planet’s red spot – has made her wonder what else might be out there.

    “There must be alien life,” she says. “We can’t be the only people. It can’t just be a coincidence that we just appeared and no one else has, and that this is the only planet with the right things for life.”

    Many of CSIRO’s staff at Tidbinbilla share her optimism and, even though Nagle forewarns that life may never be found due to the sheer scale and age of the universe, he says: “It would be a fantastic thing to find because it would answer the most fundamental questions we have: Is it just us? Are we alone? Is the universe full of life? Are we the first life? Are we the last?”

    Future missions to Saturn and its moons may yet reveal some answers, but for Cassini the deadly denouement is imminent.

    “Cassini’s going to end its life as a shooting star in the atmosphere of a giant ringed world,” says Nagle. “There’s no more poetic way for a spacecraft to finish what has been a magnificent mission.”

    The rear of DSS43 as the sun rises at the start of a new day of tracking.

    See the full article here .

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