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.
Yesterday I was out at the Canberra Deep Space Communications Complex at Tidbinbilla to witness a piece of space history – the landing of the Mars Science Laboratory (a.k.a. ‘Curiosity’) on Mars. I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of coverage of this amazing feat of maths, physics, and engineering in the last day or two, so I’ll skip all that and just share my experience. 🙂
Here are a few pix I snagged during the day…
Early in the day, the 70m dish (DSS43) and smaller DSS34 (hidden) are pointed towards where Mars will soon rise over the horizon, so that they’re ready to acquire the signal. Tidbinbilla was the primary receiving site for the landing, as none of the other two sites in the Deep Space Network around the globe had line-of-sight to Mars at the time. Just like in the movie The Dish, Australia’s space tracking stations were key to communicating with the spacecraft during the most critical phases of the mission.