Thursday, January 7, 2010

Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex

Happy New Year! This is my first post in 2010, after a brief hiatus celebrating year end festivities. Apart from watching the magnificent NYE fireworks in Sydney, I managed to do some sightseeing in Canberra and stumbled into the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex (CDSCC). This place was a godsend as I have always had a deep obsession in astronomy.

The CDSCC is part of NASA's Deep Space Network (DSN) and only one of three facilities around the world. The other two are in Goldstone, California and Madrid, Spain. There are four giant radio antennas in this complex.  Each are referred to by a "Deep Space Station" or DSS number. These "dishes" are enormous. The largest one, DSS-43, is 70m in diameter, and is a whopping 23 stories tall when standing on one end. It is the biggest of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere. Owing to high security, i.e. fences,  I could not get a close-up shot to do its monstrous size justice.

Operating 24/7, the antennas provide two-way communication with unmanned spacecrafts and space telescopes exploring the planets, moons, comets and other stellar objects throughout the solar system. Think of them as the central post office between various mission sites on Earth and the spacecrafts in orbit. Mission scientists on Earth route packets of data, such as course correction commands and software updates to these antennas for upload. Received data include vehicle health and position, plus images and data collected by science instruments aboard the vehicles. These antennas are ultra sensitive. Transfer ranges can be up to billions of kilometres from Earth. In fact, they can detect signals 20 billion times weaker than a watch battery. Go figure!

Within the complex, there is a small visitor centre that is free to the public. In there, you can find information on past space exploration missions and interesting facts about the planets in our solar system. The crown jewel exhibit is a moon rock sample, extracted during the Apollo 11 mission.  Carbon dating puts this rock at over 3.5 billion years old.

This place is a must-see if you are into astronomy and space exploration. I found the half hour drive from downtown Canberra relaxing and scenic as well. Have you been there before? And what did you think of it?


-PTS

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