Canberra’s Deep Space Network Ready to Return to the Moon
Early this week, NASA and the Canadian Space Agency will announce the crew of the Artemis II mission - the first humans in over half a century that will travel around the Moon. At the heart of the mission, is Australia’s deep space tracking station - the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex (CDSCC).
This week, NASA will announce the crew of the first human mission to return to Lunar space - with the launch of the Artemis II. The mission will carry the first humans to the furthest distances achieved since the Apollo program (over half a century ago) - out to Lunar orbit.
The four astronauts being named by NASA this week (which include one astronaut from the Canadian Space Agency) will follow a similar trajectory to the infamous Apollo 13 mission, swinging around the Lunar limb after a series of injection burns in trans-lunar orbit, before returning for a safe splashdown on Earth. The current target launch date of Artemis II is set for November 2024, with the mission expected to last approximately 10 days. The announcement is scheduled to start at 1:00am (AEST) Tuesday morning.
The launch of Artemis II follows NASA’s successful launch in November 2022 of the first Artemis mission, in which the uncrewed Space Launch System (a super-heavy lift launch vehicle) was integrated with the Orion spacecraft (a module that is capable of supporting six humans beyond Earth’s orbit) and sent around the Moon as a test of capabilities, design and reliability of the launch system, for the American space agency. It is hoped that following the November launch of the Artemis II, future Artemis missions will be taking NASA’s next batch of astronauts to land on the Lunar surface and dock with an established Moon-orbiting space station called Lunar Gateway before the decade ends. This will include the first woman and first person of colour (in human history) to set foot on the surface of another celestial body.
Amongst all of this excitement, Australia’s Deep Space Network tracking facility is once again playing a key supporting role across the Artemis missions (uncrewed and crewed), through a long-running and well-established partnership between both countries. The Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex (CDSCC) will once again be at the heart of humanity’s next steps on the Lunar surface.
Last week, NASA’s Administrator Senator Bill Nelson and Deputy Administrator Colonel (USAF, Ret.) Pamela Melroy toured the complex, taking in the sites and walking amongst the giant antennas.
“The visit downunder by NASA’s leadership team highlighted the importance of the United States’ and Australia’s partnership in the peaceful, scientific exploration of space,” said Glen Nagle, Outreach manager at the Canberra station.
“The capabilities, reliance and expertise that we have demonstrated over the last 60 years will be vital to the success of Artemis and the first return by humans to the Moon since the days of Apollo.”
“This is an exciting time for our country. Our growing, local space industry will be supporting NASA's return to the Moon. The Australian Space Agency's Trailblazer program will see industry construct a lunar rover to collect regolith (Moon soil) samples. We can leverage this expertise in robotics technology and systems for remote operations and exploration in space. The sky’s no longer the limit,” he said.
“Our team is ready to support the return to the Moon with Artemis. We still stay in touch with our ex-tracker friends who were here during the Apollo program and revel in their stories as they pushed the bounds of what was possible in those times. We can’t wait to share our own stories from the events and adventures that we will get through Artemis. Not just a quick visit to our nearest celestial neighbour but the start of establishing a long-term presence on another world and getting ready for the next giant leap to Mars.”
Australia’s Direct Line to the Solar System
The Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex (CDSCC) is no stranger to providing this level of support to NASA, having played an integral role in the success of the US space agency’s missions since its establishment in 1964. Located at Tidbinbilla, Australia (just outside Canberra), CDSCC is one of three deep-space communication facilities operated by NASA and managed locally by Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO. It has been instrumental in providing communications support for a range of missions to explore the Solar System and beyond.
The CDSCC was established as part of NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN), a global network of antennas that provides communications and support for deep space exploration. The facility was built to provide communication links between Earth and spacecraft exploring the Solar System and beyond. It first started tracking operations on 28 November 1964, and since then it has been used to track and control a variety of spacecraft, including Pioneer 10 and 11, Mariner 9 and 10, Viking 1 and 2, Voyager 1 and 2, Galileo, Magellan, Ulysses, Cassini-Huygens, Mars Global Surveyor (MGS), Mars Odyssey (MO), Opportunity (MER-B) and Spirit (MER-A).
“Many of our personnel have been here for decades and between them have accumulated hundreds of years of experience in all aspects of spacecraft communications and mission operations,” said Glen. “We share our knowledge and expertise with our colleagues at NASA and the other DSN stations which goes towards improving the results for the mission scientists and engineers.”
“There have been so many highlights over the years, but one event I will always remember was when NASA’s Messenger spacecraft was about to make its first close flyby of the planet Mercury. Our Californian station was scheduled to receive the data but an antenna failure there and their team having to deal with two other deep space missions that had gone into ‘safe mode’, meant that Canberra had to swing into action to take the call,” he said.
“With barely 15 minutes available, I remember watching our Operations Control Room team reconfigure our antennas and get all our processing systems in place - an activity that usually takes an hour to set up - to receive Messenger’s close-up images of Mercury and relay them to an exuberant group of planetary scientists over at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. They never knew what had been going on in the background to get them that data.”
The CDSCC has played a crucial role in hundreds of deep space missions. During the early days of space exploration in the 1960s and 1970s, the facility provided vital two-way communications support for a range of uncrewed probes sent to explore our Solar System. CDSCC ensured that the invaluable data was received and relayed to waiting scientists. In addition to tracking and providing telemetry, command and control for these probes as they travelled through space, CDSCC was also crucial in responding to spacecraft anomalies and real-time needs of mission scientists.
It also was responsible for receiving and transmitting data from Apollo 11 during its historic mission to land on the Moon in 1969. It provided essential communications support throughout the entire mission, and with the nearby Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station, supported Neil Armstrong’s famous first steps on the lunar surface. The complex also tracked all subsequent Apollo missions until their conclusion in 1972.
“Without the capabilities and ideal geographic placement of the Australian tracking stations, NASA would have had a hard time supporting the Apollo missions and ensuring the safety of the astronauts,” said Glen.
“From the test flights in Earth orbit of Apollo’s 7 and 9, and the big leap of Apollo’s 8 and 10 orbiting the Moon, through to the landings of Apollo’s 11, 12, 14, 15, 16 and 17, CDSCC, Honeysuckle Creek, and the Carnarvon station in Western Australia performed virtually flawlessly.”
“We really came into our own on Apollo 13 though. The Australian stations were online when the accident happened and were crucial during the first 8-9 hours of the disaster,” he said.
“Getting clear communications from the crippled spacecraft and maintaining contact with the astronauts in an evolving situation that had never been experienced before tested the teams in Australia and over at Houston. It was a worldwide effort and we pulled out all the stops to support the rescue of the Apollo 13 crew.”
In 1980, the CDSCC was upgraded with new technology that enabled it to provide more efficient communication links with spacecraft located further away from Earth. This upgrade allowed the facility to provide communications support for some of NASA’s most ambitious missions yet – including Voyager 1’s historic flyby of Saturn’s moon Titan in 1980.
Since then, the CDSCC has continued to play an important role in helping NASA and other space agencies, explore our Solar System – providing vital communication links between mission control on Earth and spacecraft located millions or even billions of kilometres away.
It is this two-way communication, often with these inanimate machines that has captivated the hearts and imagination of a global audience, now attuned to following their progress on social media, personifying these robotic explorers and even mourning their loss.
“We tell ourselves not to anthropomorphise these spacecraft, after all, they are just robots, they don’t have feelings or awareness for where they are going or what they are doing. But, you can’t help knowing that while they may be just machines, that they are in reality an extension of ourselves.”
“Vehicles like the rovers we send to Mars, are our arms, legs and eyes on another world, it’s as if we are there ourselves. You watch them as they go through all their trials and tribulations. You worry about them if there’s a problem, and you cheer for them during their successes. You can’t help it. After a while you see them like your children whom you have a responsibility for. You want them to do well and support them any way you can,” Glen muses.
“When a mission comes to an end, you do mourn in a way. When the Cassini mission came to its final ‘grand finale’ plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere, we were all huddled around the screens in our control centre.”
“We watched as the signals from Cassini disappeared one by one. Something that had been a constant throughout the past 20 years was suddenly gone, silent, final. There was quiet in the room. We all shared a look of sadness but at the same time a sense of joy and accomplishment for everything Cassini had shown us. We had lost a friend at the end of a wonderful voyage of discovery. There were knowing smiles all around.”
CDSCC is also currently the only tracking and communication facility in the world that keeps in contact with Voyager 2, which has now reached beyond the edge of our Solar System and started to enter into interstellar space. Remarkably, this 46-year-old spacecraft continues to call home to Canberra to let us know it is doing ok out there in the darkness.
“Then there’s missions like Voyager’s 1 and 2. They’ve been with us since their launch in 1977. Everyone thought that the mission was going to last about 12 years, all being well. We’d live through the early reconnaissance of the gas giants and that would be it. The Voyagers have continued on though and pushed through the outer boundaries of our Solar System, leaving behind the magnetic bubble of our Sun and moved into ‘interstellar space’, the space between the stars.”
“To still have daily contact with both of these probes is amazing to us. Their signals are incredibly small - billions of times weaker than the power of a tiny watch battery - yet still returning valuable data about a region of space that no one ever imagined that we’d be studying so soon.”
“While we love both crafts, Voyager 2 is extra special to us because it has travelled so far southward from our Solar System, that from our northern hemisphere stations, they no longer have ‘line-of-sight’ to it literally because the Earth is in the way.”
“Here in Canberra, it is nearly always above our local horizon and it is satisfying to know that we continue to provide daily contact with one of humanity’s most distant robotic ambassadors.”
Today, nearly 60 years after its establishment, the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex remains an integral part of NASA’s operations – providing crucial communication links between mission control on Earth and spacecraft located across our Solar System. The facility has played an invaluable role in helping us explore our Universe – allowing us to gain unprecedented insights into our cosmic neighbourhood that would not have been possible without its help.
Humanity’s Returning Steps - Artemis
The CDSCC’s original suite of antennas and technology has so far been suitable for historical missions (like Apollo) or space probe missions like Voyager and Cassini, but over the last few years, have commenced upgrading to deal with humanity taking its first steps back out into deep space. Whilst our smartphones are said to have more computing power than the Apollo mission computers, the new launch vehicles of Artemis - like SLS and the Orion spacecraft are equipped with the latest high-definition cameras, powerful onboard processing units, and hardware that is monitored by tens of thousands of sensors. The world is not only ready to watch on, but also expects high-definition images in almost real-time streaming distribution.
The upgrades (which have also been applied to NASA’s two other deep space tracking stations in Goldstone California, and Madrid in Spain) have included the development of new antennas, as well as hardware equipment upgrades on the antennas.
“For the past years, the whole of the [Deep Space] Network has been going through what we call the DLEU - the DSN Lunar Exploration Upgrade - to add new capabilities to our 34-metre diameter antennas to support the higher bandwidths required by the Artemis missions,” said Glen.
“In turn, each of the antennas receives new transmitters and receivers preparing them for the human phases of the Artemis program. It takes about 6 months to do each upgrade and re-certify the entire antenna to return to deep space operations activity. During the downtime, that puts pressure on the dishes to take up the load of the already packed tracking schedule.”
“It’s a great testament to our planning and the expertise of our team that each upgrade has gone smoothly. Most of the upgrade time is spent ensuring that the changes to the antenna’s systems mean that they can still support the other 40-plus missions we already communicate with. Performance Indicator Tests are conducted with each mission to ensure readiness, and simulations are performed to test new capabilities required for Artemis, as well as the micro fleets of CubeSats that are now becoming more common in deep space exploration.”
With more of humanity now being more connected, one terrestrial problem that is emerging is the usage and sharing of the radio frequency spectrum. As portions of this spectrum are allocated and shared for services such as GPS, Wi-Fi and mobile phone services (e.g. 4G and 5G), space-based needs (such as the work of the CDSCC or radio astronomy) is impacted.
These networks not only have limited portions of the spectrum, but they also have more data being crammed into their already brimming bandwidth availability - meaning that greater effort has to be placed on data processing and frequency ‘noise’ reduction to prevent data corruption. Like many space agencies globally, the Australian Space Agency, and organisations like the CDSCC and CSIRO have started to consider other options.
One idea, which is currently being researched and tested with demonstrator programs - including here in Australia - is the transfer of data through light (as opposed to radio signals). Through this method, more data can be squeezed into transmissions, and this part of the spectrum is so far relatively free.
Part of the Artemis mission is to demonstrate this technology, so that when humans do finally return to the Moon - reliable, high-quality signals can be broadcast to the rest of the world without issue. Stations such as the CDSCC and the rest of the Deep Space Network will ultimately adapt their antennas to provide “hybrid” communication services, supporting both optical data links for future missions, as well as continuing to carry radio spectrum capability for legacy spacecraft.
“Right now, the Deep Space Network is building a new antenna at our sister station in Goldstone, California. It will be the first of the hybrid antennas carrying a set of optical mirrors capable of supporting laser communications with spacecraft such as Psyche which is launching later this year, as well as from the optical communication systems expected to be used during future Artemis and Lunar Gateway missions.”
“For Canberra, our next antenna will start construction in October 2025 and will be due to come online in 2029. Initially, it will be built as a ‘radio frequency only’ dish, but if the Goldstone antenna performs as expected with the new optical capability, our new dish will be upgraded, along with other antennas in the DSN,” said Glen.
“The magnitude increases in bandwidth that optical communications will provide will change the way that missions operate and the amount of science that can be delivered by humanity’s deep space explorers.”
The Dish Antennas of Tidbinbilla
As Australian space communities start to get excited about the upcoming Artemis missions, and our local space industries start to ramp up their involvement - it is the existing relationship between NASA, the Deep Space Network and the CDSCC that already connects us to humanity’s reach for the stars.
When these radio antennas fix their gaze on the incoming signal - be it from humans in spacecraft, robots on the surface of planets, or spacecraft sailing through the Solar System - they give us Australians front-row seats to some of the greatest events in history. Memorable events, where the intersectionality of science, curiosity, discovery and engineering shine a light on how much we can achieve through mutual cooperation and respect.
It reminds us that the gentle giant dishes nestled in the Tidbinbilla valley are symbols of where we have been in the past, and equally as important - where we, as a species, go next.
We acknowledge the Ngunnawal people as the traditional owners of the lands upon which the CDSCC is located.
Gallery images by Rami Mandow.