Archive for September, 2013
The Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex (CDSCC), located on the rural outskirts of Canberra at Tidbinbilla, is one of only three NASA deep space tracking stations spread around the globe. On Sunday 18th August, as part of National Science Week they held their biennial ‘Space Open Day‘, affording a rare opportunity for visitors to tour areas of the facility that are normally off-limits to the public. My partner and I have recently joined the ranks of volunteers at CDSCC, and Space Open Day was to be our first outing in that role, along with a small team of new and long-time volunteers.
Our hour-long trek to the facility started bright and early (for a Sunday) in order to catch the volunteer briefing before the gates opened at 9am. Briefing done, it was time to head ‘front of house’ to greet the incoming visitors and attend to our rostered duties. Throughout the day, visitors were able to hop on a bus tour of the entire complex, join a guided walking tour of “the big dish” (DSS-43), and complete a self-guided walk to the dish for fantastic photo opportunities. In addition, the Visitor Centre displays, video presentations, and hands-on computer terminals were available as normal.
Special talks were conducted throughout the day, with Education & Outreach Manager Glen Nagle first talking about CDSCC’s crucial role in the recent launch and landing of the Mars Science Laboratory, ‘Curiosity’, on Mars. CSIRO held a ‘Tweetup’ for the launch of Curiosity in November 2011, and a followup public event for the audacious landing in August the following year. (While guests were enthralled watching the Curiosity mission unfold, CDSCC staff were hard at work receiving telemetry and tracking data direct from the spacecraft and relaying it to Mission Control at NASA’s JPL in Pasadena, California.) Later in the day, Mike Dinn gave a talk on the Apollo missions. Mike was a technician at Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station during the Apollo era, and it was a real treat for centre visitors to be able to hear about that iconic period of spaceflight from someone who actually worked on the missions.
I was awake at stupid o’clock last Sunday morning to watch NASA’s livestream of the launch of the HTV-4 resupply vehicle. At precisely 05:48:46AM AEST, JAXA H-IIB F4 launch vehicle lifted off smoothly en route to resupply the International Space Station (ISS). The 5.4 tonne payload comprised all the usual suspects: water, replacement and upgraded electronics for various ISS systems, spares for major station components, and new equipment and supplies for experiments.
Nestled in amongst the other cargo were four tiny ‘CubeSats’, two of which were funded by a Kickstarter project: ArduSat. These tiny satellites are the first example of crowdfunded space operations, and represent an exciting new development in the recent popularisation of ‘citizen science’.
Commercial satellite launches are immensely expensive, costing hundreds of millions of dollars using current rocket-based technology. The idea behind the ArduSat project is to provide low-cost access to real, orbiting satellites to students and space enthusiasts. By designing payloads small enough to fit into gaps in the main cargo area, innovative satellite operators are able to hitch a ride on commercial space launches at a fraction of the cost. The dramatic cost reduction has finally made it viable to create an orbiting educational platform, a remarkable achievement.