Our link to the far reaches of human achievement
Just beyond the south western extremities of urban Canberra is the Canberra Deep Space Communications Complex at Tidbinbilla. Surrounded by hills – part of the scientific attraction of the relatively radio quiet site –is the most startling technology tucked away in a typical rural Australian setting. Kangaroos, sheep and cattle share the land with high powered radio telescopes and gum trees.
As you approach Tidbinbilla and the giant dishes first appear around a corner the contrast of modern technology upon a backdrop of countryside provides a moment that takes your breath away.
On 26 February this year Australia celebrated the 50th Anniversary of its relationship with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration – NASA. Back on 26 February 1960 Prime Minister Menzies and US Ambassador Sebald signed the Agreement Between the Government of Australia and the Government of the USA relating to Space Vehicle Tracking and Communications.
The agreement has seen Australia play a role in the moon landing and in the exploration of Mars. It has seen $610million in US investment in Australia. In its early days 600 people were employed under the agreement making NASA one of Canberra’s biggest employers.
Today the agreement underpins the operations at Tidbinbilla which is managed by the CSIRO and is one of three global pillars that make up NASA’s Deep Space Network. The other sites are at Goldstone Creek in California and near Madrid in Spain.
Tidbinbilla contains four large dishes (others are on the drawing board) which includes the 26m dish originally from Honeysuckle Creek. This telescope was the receiver for the first 11 minutes of Neil Armstrong’s moon walk and captured the immortal first words from the moon “That’s one small step …”
Still in service until late last year, the Honeysuckle dish is now inactive. It has instead become a precious part of the world’s scientific heritage. Once a collector of data, it now collects plaques.
Dr Miriam Baltuck is the director of Tidbinbilla with one of the best offices in Australia. Her window perfectly frames the largest of the dishes: the 70m radio telescope. To this day, when the telescope changes its focus and shifts position, the slow gentle movement of this colossal machine still grabs her attention until the manoeuvre is complete. It is, she says, majestic.
The attention of the telescope’s focus is also a source of majesty.
On the day we visited, the 70m telescope was receiving information from Voyager 2. Launched 33 years ago this August, it is now the second furthest human object from humanity. The furthest is its sibling: Voyager 1.
The Voyager probes were originally sent to provide the first detailed pictures of Jupiter and Saturn which they did spectacularly from 1979 to 1981. Surviving these encounters Voyager 2 visited Uranus in 1986 and Neptune in 1989. By that point the probes had exceeded all expectations yet more than 20 years later they are still going and, in the process, writing one of the most remarkable chapters in the history of space exploration.
Now the Voyagers are encountering the very outer limits of the influence of the Sun – the Heliosheath. This is the furthest reaches of solar winds emanating from the Sun. The Voyager spacecraft are quite literally mapping the extremity of our solar system and with it the dimensions of our corner of the universe.
As Voyager 2 was going about its business a few weeks ago I was able to look at the screen which is the read out from the 70m telescope and see the numbers it was beaming back from deep space right before my eyes. It takes more than twelve hours at the speed of light for that information to make the journey from Voyager back home. It occurred to me that Tidbinbilla is literally a portal to the very edge of human experience.
Voyager 2 is just one of 40 spacecraft being tracked at Tidbinbilla which are operating beyond the Earth’s orbit. There are craft orbiting Saturn, crawling on Mars, looking close-up at the Sun, and in the case of the Voyagers looking beyond our solar system too.
The Australian role in the NASA program at Tidbinbilla through the CSIRO has been a cornerstone in Australia becoming a world leader in radio astronomy. It is one of the key reasons why our country is now a leading contender to host the Square Kilometre Array telescope: one of the least reported yet really great opportunities that has presented itself to our country in the new millennium.
The Deep Space Network and Tidbinbilla is big science. It is big devices communicating over vast distances defining the limits of human achievement. A trip to Tidbinbilla, which is so easy to do with its Visitor Centre, offers all of us the grand experience which is the wonder of science.
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