A visit to the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex
Deep Space Station 43, also known as DSS43, looms out of the mist at the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex. With a 70-metre wide antenna, it is the largest dish telescope in the southern hemisphere. Photo Nick Lomb
On 4 June 2012, on the way up to Siding Spring Observatory to see the transit of Venus, our group had the pleasure of a visit to the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex at Tidbinbilla. Due to its location to aficionados it is affectionately known as ‘Tid’. We were kindly shown around the complex by the Education and Public Outreach Manager, Glen Nagle. He provided a most informative and enthusiastic commentary that was much appreciated by the group.
I first visited Tid as a young vacation student at the nearby Mt Stromlo Observatory less than three years after its official opening. There was as yet only one antenna, which has long since been demolished, but the computer facilities in the control room were highly sophisticated for the time and impressed me greatly. There was no visitor centre as yet and my fellow vacation students and I could only visit through the kind assistance of a graduate student at Stromlo whose husband worked at the complex.
Looking into the surface of the 70-metre wide antenna of DSS43. Radio waves from spacecraft hit the dish and bounce up to the ‘sub-reflector’ supported on four legs and then bounce back to whichever feed has been selected in the centre of the dish. From the feed the waves are guided to a receiver. Photo Nick Lomb
The CDCCS is operated by CSIRO on behalf of NASA. It is one of three such complexes that NASA has around the world: Goldstone in California, near Madrid in Spain and Tidbinbilla in Australia. These locations are spread roughly evenly around the globe so that as a distant spacecraft disappears below the horizon at one location due to the rotation of the Earth it appears above the horizon at the next location.
Today there are three antennas in operation at the station: two dishes 34-metres in width and the giant 70-m wide antenna DSS43. These provide communication with a variety of distant spacecraft such as the Voyagers, the Cassini spacecraft circling Saturn and New Horizons, which is on the way to the dwarf planet Pluto and beyond. As the spacecraft are hundreds or thousands of millions of kilometres away and necessarily transmit only at low power, large antennas equipped with highly sensitive receivers are essential in order to communicate with them .
A panoramic view of DSS46, the radio telescope that in July 1969 received the first few minutes of television signals showing Neil Armstrong first stepping onto the surface of the Moon. Photo Nick Lomb
There is also a historic radio telescope at the station, which is no longer in operating condition. It is historic as on Monday 21 July 1969 this 26-metre wide antenna DSS46 received the first few minutes of the Apollo 11 moonwalk and this signal was then broadcast around the world. After those few minutes the Moon came into the field of view of the main receiver on the Parkes Radio Telescope and the broadcast signal was then switched. DSS43 was originally at a tracking station at Honeysuckle Creek, also in the ACT, and the antenna was moved to Tidbinbilla when that station was closed.
Nick Lomb (left) and Fred Watson with the Education and Public Outreach Manager at the CDSCC Glen Nagle (middle) in front of DSS46 that was used to receive signals from the Moon in 1969. Picture Nick Lomb
A visit to the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex is highly recommended for anyone visiting Canberra and having transport available. It is open every day from 9am to 5pm apart from 25 December when it is closed. There is a Visitor Centre with lots of interesting displays, a gift shop and the Moon Rock Café for meals or refreshments. The complex is 35 km south west of Canberra city.