There’s a buzz of activity at the New Norcia ground station in Western Australia, which we operate for the European Space Agency[Link will open in a new window] (ESA). The station is part of ESA’s European Space Tracking network, ESTRACK. The network supports the Agency’s deep-space missions, sending instructions and also downlinking data collected by its spacecraft.
With the support of the Australian Space Agency[Link will open in a new window], ESA has started work on a new 35-metre antenna at New Norcia and are aiming to complete it in early 2025. The new antenna, named NNO-3, will feature a receiver that will be cryogenically cooled to around -263 degrees Celsius. This icy temperature will provide extra sensitivity to support future space missions.
NNO-3 is joining two other dishes at the station, an existing 35-metre antenna along with a much smaller one. The addition will increase ESTRACK’s capacity to support ESA’s growing number of space missions. One mission is JUICE[Link will open in a new window], which will explore Jupiter’s icy moons – Ganymede, Europa and Calisto.
Calling home to New Norcia
Space missions like JUICE and other spacecraft exploring the Solar System require a network of dishes to communicate back home.
New Norcia is one of three ESTRACK sites around the world; the other two are in Spain and Argentina. This arrangement ensures someone is always in range to ‘pick up the phone’ no matter the time of day or night, or wherever ESA’s spacecraft are in the Solar System.
And because it’s such a long-distance call, a big dish is needed. One that is bigger than the average satellite dish that picks up your TV signals.
So, what will the new dish do?
To infinity and beyond
JUICE, which stands for JUpiter ICy moons Explorer, is going to spend three years exploring the Jovian system. The spacecraft has a string of sensors on a 10.6-metre-long arm that will measure the magnetic and gravity fields in and around Jupiter.
The spacecraft will also carry a spectrograph to investigate the atmospheres and aurorae of the gas giant and its icy moons.
The main purpose of the mission is characterising the oceans under the icy moons’ surfaces, with particular attention on Ganymede. The data JUICE will send back to Earth, via ESTRACK, will help scientists understand if life could have – or has – emerged on these icy worlds.
ESA has scheduled the JUICE mission for launch in 2023. Additionally, they’re planning missions to explore other parts of our Solar System and beyond.
The Euclid space telescope[Link will open in a new window] will help us understand dark matter and dark energy by mapping the shape and distance of galaxies and galaxy clusters.
Another future mission called Vigil [Link will open in a new window]will monitor solar activity. Solar flares are massive eruptions on the Sun that can send high energy particles in Earth’s direction. Most of the time Earth’s magnetic field protects us from these particles. But under certain circumstances this activity can disrupt power grids on Earth and poses significant problems to spacecraft and astronauts. Vigil will warn us of these solar storms, giving us time to protect the vulnerable systems, spacecraft and astronauts.
Picking up the phone
Our operations team, led by Suzy Jackson[Link will open in a new window], is proud to manage the New Norcia site for ESA. “This new dish will double the site’s capacity,” Suzy said.
“New Norcia’s existing deep space antenna has been extremely busy swapping from Martian spacecraft to BepiColumbo and Solar Orbiter on their way to the inner Solar System.
“The new dish will allow the station to point in two directions at once, like Mars and Mercury, or Mars and Jupiter to chat with JUICE.
“There’s a lot to maintaining these antennas, and my team is well up to the task. We need to keep them running in perfect order, as the missions are depending on us,” she said.