It’s been a momentous couple of days in the history of Australian space exploration. Just yesterday, the newest antenna in NASA’s Deep Space Network was officially commissioned at our Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex, five years to the day from its original ground breaking ceremony.
The new dish, Deep Space Station 35, incorporates the latest in Beam Waveguide technology: increasing its sensitivity and capacity for tracking, commanding and receiving data from spacecraft located billions of kilometres away across the Solar System.
The Canberra Complex is one of three Deep Space Network stations capable of providing two-way radio contact with robotic deep space missions. The Complex’s sister stations are located in California and Spain. Together, the three stations provide around-the-clock contact with over 35 spacecraft exploring the solar system and beyond. You may remember this technology being utilised recently for the Rosetta and Philae comet landing; and for communicating with the ever so far-flung New Horizons spacecraft on its journey past Pluto.
As a vital communication station for these types of missions, the new antenna will make deep space communication for spacecraft and their Earth-bound support staff even easier.
But don’t put away the space candles just yet. For today marks the 55 anniversary of the signing of the original space communication and tracking agreement signed between Australia and the United States, way back on the 26th February 1960.
It is a partnership that has that has led to many historic firsts and breakthrough discoveries – the first flybys of Mercury and Venus, the vital communication link and television coverage of the first Moonwalk, robotic rover landings on (and amazing views from) the surface of Mars, the first ‘close-ups’ of the giant outer planets and first-time encounters with worlds such as Pluto.
So, we say welcome to the newest addition to the Deep Space Network and happy birthday to our space-relationship with the US. Here’s to another fifty five years of success!
P.S. We couldn’t finish the blog without including this little gem:
By Glen Nagle
The town of Parkes, NSW – home of our famous Parkes Radio Telescope – has slipped on its Blue Suede Shoes.
In the second week of January each year, Parkes marks the birthday of Elvis Presley with a massive festival celebrating everything Elvis. It started over 20 years ago as a one-day get together of just a few hundred fans. In 2015, the festival has grown to cover a week of events, shows, parades and exhibits and over 15,000 visitors more than doubling the town’s population.
Along with one of the largest collections of Elvis memorabilia on permanent display at the Henry Parkes Visitor Centre (donated by Wiggles performer, Greg Page), the Parkes Elvis Festival is one of the town’s major icons.
The other great icon of course is the Dish – our very own Parkes radio telescope – so combining these two great icons into one stellar event was always going to be, quite literally, a match made in Heaven.
On Wednesday, 7th January an inaugural concert was held at the Dish to help mark the opening night of the Festival – and to celebrate what would have been the King’s 80th birthday the following day.
Starring popular Elvis tribute artist, Shakin’ Rick Mackaway, and backed by the fabulous rock band, The Wilsonics, the dinner and show night attracted hundreds of people from across the region and as far and wide as Canberra, Wollongong, Sydney, Adelaide and Melbourne.
Storm clouds threatened earlier in the day, but nothing was going to rain on this parade of love for the King and the Dish. The clouds almost magically bypassed the telescope and the brightest stars in heaven came out for an incredible night of songs, dancing and laughter against the impressive backdrop of Australia’s iconic radio telescope.
Continuing to observe the heavens throughout the show, the Dish even performed during the intermission with several large moves enthralling the audience and provoking questions about both the science behind, and the history of, the Dish.
As the evening came to a close with a final encore performance and the audience departed, the number one question was, “Are you going to do it again next year?!”
Hmmm? Elvis and the Dish 2! Two icons, exciting audiences everywhere with music and astronomy.
The possibilities are endless. Watch this space.
Our Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex just received a signal, sent at the speed of light, from 4.8 billion kilometres away. Who was it from? What was it about? Find out below…
Originally posted on Universe @ CSIRO:
I guess we all love to sleep in on a Sunday morning, maybe just snoozing under the doona, laying there for a few hours before getting up for a late brunch. Ah! Luxury.
On Sunday 7th December 2014, the New Horizons spacecraft, 5 billion kilometres away from the warmth of Earth, had little time to sleep in. It was ‘wake up’ day. The final awakening from hibernation for the next 2 years until well after its encounter with rapidly approaching dwarf planet, Pluto, set for the 14th July 2015.
Waiting back on Earth to hear the spacecraft’s morning ‘alarm’ go off was the giant 70 metre antenna dish at the CSIRO-managed, Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex – Deep Space Station 43 (DSS43).
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UPDATE 16/03/2015: Our Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex (CDSCC) continues to provide tracking support to the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Rosetta spacecraft as it studies Comet 67P. As the area that the Philae lander probe is believed to be located in receives more sunlight over the next few months, Rosetta will make occasional attempts to listen for a wakeup call and CDSCC, along with the ESA station at New Norica, near Perth, will be waiting to hear any news.
The European Space Agency is set to make a daring attempt to land the Philae probe on the surface of an icy comet.
The giant antenna dishes of the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex are supporting the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft, relaying data that the refrigerator-sized Philae probe has commenced its descent to the unknown surface of Comet 67-P Churyumov-Gerasimenko.
Nearly 450 million kilometres from Earth and travelling at 18 kilometres per second, the bizarre ice, dust and rock strewn surface of the 5 kilometre long, 10 billion tonne comet called Churyumov-Gerasimenko will be stage for one of the most daring landing attempts in the history of space exploration.
After a 10-year journey, the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Rosetta spacecraft arrived at the comet (also known as Comet 67P) in August 2014. For the past several months Rosetta scientists have been using the spacecraft’s instruments to analyse and photograph the comet’s surface looking for a potential landing site. Several candidate locations were chosen but one, ‘Site J’, seemed to present the best chance for a successful touchdown of Rosetta’s ‘Philae’ probe on the comet’s unexplored surface.
Site J, now called Agilkia (after an island in the Nile River), however, only offers the instrument-laden Philae lander a 75% chance of a safe touchdown at 3.02am (AEDST) on Thursday 13th November. Low gravity, car-sized boulders, 30 metre cliffs, deep holes and an unknown surface composition are just some hazards that the unaided robotic probe will have to face.
Keeping an eye on events as they unfold will be the giant antenna dishes of NASA’s Deep Space Network and those of the European Space Agency, which have tracked the spacecraft throughout its 10 year adventure.
At the CSIRO-managed Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex (CDSCC), Deep Space Station 34 (DSS34) will listen in on relayed signals from the Rosetta mothercraft as it releases the Philae probe on a 7-hour descent towards the comet’s surface. Along withESA’s New Norcia antenna near Perth, separation of the two craft will be confirmed late Wednesday evening (12th November). DSS34 will provide ongoing back-up communication coverage between the Rosetta/Philae spacecraft and the anxious science team located at ESA’s mission control centre in Darmstadt, Germany.
As the Earth continues to turn and the spacecraft fall out of Australia’s view, the Canberra and New Norcia antennas will hand over to sister stations in Spain and Argentina for the last leg of the journey and the historic touchdown signal on Thursday morning (13th November).
The European Space Agency has been doing a remarkable job engaging the public in this great adventure. You can following along with the events of Rosetta and Philae’s great adventure on their mission blog. ESA is also broadcasting live coverage of the descent and landing. Updates also via Twitter – Rosetta | Philae
This originally appeared on the CSIRO Universe blog.
By Emily Lehmann
There’s a new star in the making in the world of astronomy, with our Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) named as a finalist in The Australian Innovation Challenge’s Manufacturing, Construction and Infrastructure category*.
We recently shared some of the first images produced by the amazing ASKAP telescope. It comprises a cluster of 36 radio dishes that work in conjunction with a powerful supercomputer to form what is, in effect, a single composite radio telescope a massive six kilometres across.
This allows it to survey the night sky very quickly, taking panoramic snapshots over 100 times the size of the full moon (as viewed from Earth, of course!).
The world-leading facility is revolutionising astronomy, and this award nomination is a welcome recognition. You can vote for it here – just scroll down to the bottom of the page.
Now, for all you space cadets, here’s five astronomical facts about why ASKAP is out of this world and a sure-fire winner:
- ASKAP’s 36 radio dishes, each 12 metres in diameter, give it the capacity to scan the whole sky and make it sensitive to whisper-quiet signals from the Milky Way.
- ASKAP is an outstanding telescope in its own right, as well as a technology demonstrator for the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). This pioneering technology will make ASKAP the fastest radio telescope in the world for surveying the sky.
- Once built, the SKA will comprise of a vast army of radio receivers distributed over tens to hundreds of kilometres in remote areas of Western Australia and Africa.
- The SKA will generate five million million bytes of information in its first day. That’s almost as many grains of sand on all of the world’s beaches.
- ASKAP is located in the remote Murchison Shire of Western Australia, which was chosen because there is hardly any human activity and so little background radio noise.
ASKAP is one of four CSIRO projects already in the running for different categories in the Oz’s Innovation Challenge (we’ve also written about swarm sensing and Direct Nickel). You can #voteCSIRO for any and all of them – just follow the links from the Challenge’s home page!
We asked, and you surely delivered. We put out a call for your photos of the lunar eclipse, and got so many that for a moment we were afraid we might break Facebook. Here are some of our favourites.
It was a little cloudy in Melbourne, but Rhonda Baum still managed to sneak a shot through the gloom.
Clear skies in Port Lincoln helped Peter Knife get this.
Meanwhile, in Albury, the eclipse really turned it on for Petra de Ruyter.
And Tamworth lived up to its claim to be Big Sky Country.
Some managed to catch the purple tones.
Others managed to catch tones we found a little surprising. There’s always one, isn’t there, Peter Feeney?
We got images from Japan.
We got spectacular montages.
But for some of us, the weather didn’t co-operate at all. Kim Cook was able to remind those of us who missed out that clouds can be beautiful too.
But if we’re honest, we have to admit that Ali Ceyhan spoke for all of us who didn’t get to see it.
Next time, next time … And our sincere thanks to all of you for your photos.
By Lewis Ball, CSIRO
The future looks very bright for Australian radio astronomy but it was somewhat clouded earlier this year when CSIRO’s radio astronomy program took a dramatic hit in the Australian federal budget.
CSIRO has cut its funding for radio astronomy by 15%, down A$3.5 million to A$17 million for the 2014-15 financial year. The result will be a reduction of about 30 staff from the plan of just three months ago.
The cuts will impact most heavily on CSIRO’s in-house astronomy research, on the operation of the Parkes radio telescope – instantly recognisable from the movie The Dish – on the less well known but tremendously productive Australia Telescope Compact Array near Narrabri and on the Mopra Telescope near Coonabarabran, all in New South Wales.
About two-thirds of ATNF’s staffing reduction will be effected through not filling planned new roles, most prominent of which was to be a CSIRO “SKA Chief Scientist”. A third of the reduction will be through involuntary redundancies. Eight staff across sites in Sydney, Parkes, Narrabri and Geraldton have already been informed that their roles are expected to cease.
The speed of implementation of such a substantial funding reduction forces swift action. This has unsettled staff and the broader astronomy community, but it hasn’t changed the broad direction of CSIRO’s astronomy program.
World leaders in radio astronomy
Australian scientists and engineers are world leaders in radio astronomy, both in understanding our universe and in developing some of the most innovative technologies used to gain that understanding, and have been for 50 years.
CSIRO’s Australia Telescope National Facility (ATNF) has been integral to the discovery of the first double pulsar system (a long-sought holy grail of astronomy), the identification of a previously unknown arm of our own galaxy, the Milky Way, and the invention of Wi-Fi now so embedded in everyday communications.
For the past decade CSIRO has been steadily changing the way it operates its radio astronomy facilities. CSIRO’s highest priority is the pursuit of science enabled by the development of an innovative new technology that provides an unprecedented wide field of view.
This uses “Phased Array Feeds” (PAFs) as multi-pixel radio cameras at the focus of dishes. PAFs are being deployed in the Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP), in Western Australia, which will be the fastest radio telescope in the world for surveying the sky.
ASKAP is in the early stages of commissioning. It is just now starting to demonstrate the new capabilities obtainable with a PAF-equipped array.
ASKAP is an outstanding telescope in its own right but is also a pathfinder to the huge Square Kilometre Array (SKA). This enormous project will build the world’s biggest astronomy observatory in Australia and southern Africa. It’s also the most expensive at a cost of around A$2.5 billion.
Cutbacks at The Dish
To resource these exciting developments, CSIRO has been reducing costs and staffing at its existing facilities, including the venerable Parkes Dish. This is a painful but necessary process. The most recent funding cuts will result in more pain.
Astronomers will no longer have the option of travelling to the Compact Array to operate the telescope to collect their data. They can run the telescope from CSIRO’s operations centre in Sydney, or from their own university, or from anywhere in the world via an internet connection.
Astronomers who use the Parkes telescope have been doing this for the past year after a very successful program to make the 50-year-old dish remotely operable. That is pretty amazing for a machine built before the advent of modern computers.
For many decades Parkes staff have swapped detector systems or “radio receivers” in and out of the focus cabin, the box at the tip of the tripod that sits about 64 metres off the ground. Each receiver operates at different wavelengths and offers quite different types of science.
It seems likely that CSIRO will offer just two Parkes receivers for at least the next six to 12 months, since it will no longer have the staff needed to swap receivers. Similar reductions in the capability of the Compact Array will also be needed to fit within the budget.
While the current changes are painful, the future is incredibly exciting. The direction of Australia’s astronomy is described in the Decadal Plan for Australian Astronomy for 2006–2015. It identifies participation in the SKA and access to the world’s largest optical telescopes as the two highest priorities for Australian astronomy.
We are making progress on both fronts, despite some significant challenges. The process to develop the plan for the next decade is well in hand under the stewardship of the National Committee for Astronomy.
Phased arrays are also at the heart of the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA), another innovative SKA precursor that has been in operation for a little over a year.
ASKAP and the MWA are located in the Murchison region of Western Australia, chosen because it has a tremendously low level of human activity and so astonishingly little background radio noise.
This radio quietness is the equivalent of the dark skies so important for optical astronomers. Less noise means astronomers are better able to detect and study the incredibly weak radio signals from the most distant parts of the universe.
This freedom from radio interference is a unique resource available only in remote parts of Australia and is essential for ASKAP, MWA and much of the science targeted by the SKA.
The wide fields of view of ASKAP and the MWA enable unprecedented studies of the entire radio sky. Astronomers will measure the radio emission of millions of galaxies and complete massive surveys that for the first time will connect radio astronomy to the more mature field of optical astronomy.
Mapping the sky with EMU and WALLABY
Both will survey millions of galaxies and together they will trace the formation and evolution of stars, galaxies and massive black holes to help us explore the large-scale structure of the universe.
The MWA is already producing great science targeted at the detection of intergalactic hydrogen gas during what’s known as the “epoch of reionisation” when the first stars in the universe began to shine.
With the SKA we aim to understand what the mysterious dark matter and dark energy are. We may also provide another spin-off such as the Wi-Fi technology, which came from CSIRO efforts to detect the evaporating black holes predicted by Stephen Hawking.
Advances in data-mining or processing techniques driven by the astonishing data rates that will be collected by the thousands of SKA antennas deployed across the Australian and African continents might provide the most fertile ground of all, illustrating once again the long-term benefits of investing in cutting-edge science.
Lewis Ball has received funding from the Australian Research Council. CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science receives funding from a variety of government sources, and from NASA/JPL.