Located at Tidbinbilla, just outside Australia's capital city, the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex is one of three Deep Space Network stations around the world. The Complex's sister stations are located at Goldstone in California, and near Madrid in Spain. Together, the three stations provide around-the-clock contact with more than 30 spacecraft, including missions to study Mercury, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Pluto, comets, the Moon and the Sun.
There are currently four antennas operating at the Canberra station: one 70-metre and three 34-metre radio dishes that receive data from, and transmit commands to, spacecraft on deep space missions.
Tracking spacecraft with Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex
In 1965 the Canberra station helped to receive the first close-up pictures of the surface of Mars, taken by the Mariner 4 spacecraft. Since then, it has been involved in hundreds of missions, including all of NASA's interplanetary robotic spacecraft, as well as human missions into space such as the Apollo missions to the Moon, the Skylab space station, and the early flights of the Space Shuttle.
Canberra's antennas carried the signals confirming the landing of most of NASA's Mars rovers including Spirit and Opportunity in 2021, Curiosity in 2015, and Perseverance in 2021. In 2015 it received some of the first images of Pluto from the New Horizons spacecraft, 50 years to the day from receiving those first close-up images of Mars.
The Complex is currently supporting missions, including:
- A dozen missions either orbiting or on the surface of Mars
- Japan's Akatsuki mission orbiting Venus
- Juno spacecraft orbiting Jupiter, and,
- Voyager 1 and 2, which have been in space for over 40 years.
The Complex supports the missions of many different national space agencies, including those in Europe, the United States, Japan, India, and the United Arab Emirates.
Research with Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex
The Complex is also involved in radio astronomy research. NASA makes available approximately five per cent of time on the 70-m antenna for research programs, which includes detection of objects such as black holes and pulsars, radio-frequency cataloguing, and linking with other telescopes for high-resolution imaging using a technique called very long baseline interferometry.
Fast facts about Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex
- The Complex is a NASA facility managed by CSIRO on behalf of the Australian Government; it operates through a government-to-government, treaty-level agreement.
- Activities of the Deep Space Network are coordinated by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.
- The Canberra station was officially opened on 19 March 1965; it was then known as the Tidbinbilla Deep Space Instrumentation Facility.
- Tidbinbilla was chosen as the location for the Australian facility because it is close to the capital Canberra, and hills shield the site from radio-frequency interference.
- The Complex's antennas operate at frequencies from 1660 MHz to 32 GHz.
- Each day the antennas receive hundreds of gigabytes of data, including thousands of images, from dozens of spacecraft.
- Approximately 90 staff support the 24-hour operation of the Complex.
- The 26-metre antenna that was originally located at the Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station and which returned the first images of the Apollo 11 Moon walk in 1969 was relocated to the station at Tidbinbilla in 1981. It was retired from deep space service in 2010