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By Glen Nagle 13 April 2023 4 min read

For 50 years, the 70-metre antenna at the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex[Link will open in a new window] has supported exploration of our Solar System and beyond.

We operate and manage NASA’s Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex, where the 70-metre antenna, known as Deep Space Station 43 (DSS43), lives.

As Australia’s largest antenna, DSS43 [Link will open in a new window]provides two-way communication with dozens of robotic spacecraft. On its 50th birthday, we’re celebrating some of its greatest achievements, from the Apollo program to the Voyagers’ Grand Tour of the Solar System.

It started with the Moon

Deep Space Station 43 was constructed between 1969 and 1972. It was ready in time to support communications and tracking for the final mission of NASA’s Apollo lunar program – Apollo 17. Several months later, Prime Minister Gough Whitlam officially opened the 64-metre antenna on 13 April 1973.

DSS43 took on new heights in the mid-1980s. Its dish was expanded to 70-metres and continued to support hundreds of robotic missions.

With the Artemis missions returning to the Moon, DSS43 will once again be supporting human exploration of space.

Apollo 17 astronaut, Gene Cernan on the Moon in Dec. 1972. Image: NASA.

Mars, through the 'seven minutes of terror'

Deep Space Station 43 has supported nearly all the spacecraft that have either entered orbit around Mars or landed on its surface.

Canberra’s giant dish has provided two-way communications to missions from the United States, Europe, India and the United Arab Emirates.

DSS43 has been crucial in the successful landings of NASA’s Mars exploration rovers, such as Spirit and Opportunity. It was there in 2012 when the Curiosity rover made its ‘seven minutes of terror’ entry into the thin Martian atmosphere. To decelerate from 20,000kph to a gentle touchdown on the surface takes seven minutes. But due to the ‘speed of light’ delay time for the signals between Mars and Earth, the science team waits to discover whether their rover is ‘alive or dead’ on the red planet.

When DSS43 delivered that signal from Mars, terror turned to joy at NASA mission control.

NASA’s Mars rover, Spirit takes a selfie on the red planet. Image: NASA.

Cassini, from beginning to the end

DSS43 supported the joint NASA and European Space Agency (ESA) Cassini mission over 20 years.

Launched in 1997, the bus-sized Cassini spacecraft carried ESA’s Huygens probe on a seven-year journey to Saturn. The antenna received the critical signal confirming to the waiting mission team on Earth that the spacecraft had entered the ringed planet’s orbit in 2004. DSS43 also received the signal from the Huygens probe as it plunged through the atmosphere of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, to touchdown on its surface.

The big dish was there for every flyby of the planet, its rings and family of moons. The data it returned confirmed the existence of liquid lakes on Titan and the structure of Saturn’s rings and atmosphere.

DSS43 was also there for Cassini’s final moments. After 20 years, Cassini ended with a spectacular plunge by the spacecraft into Saturn’s atmosphere, where it disintegrated.

Artist’s illustration of Cassini heading towards Saturn. Image: NASA.

Wonders of the Universe

It’s not all communicating with and tracking robotic spacecraft. DSS43 also supports international radio astronomy observations of our galaxy and the deep Universe.

As a host nation of NASA’s Deep Space Network, Australia’s radio astronomers get to use ‘spare’ time on the antenna to do radio observations of objects like the supermassive black hole at the centre of our Milky Way Galaxy. They can also build radio images of cloud structures of the elements that fill the space between the stars.

Canberra’s big dish can be combined with other radio telescopes, such as our Parkes radio telescope, Murriyang. Working together creates extremely large virtual antennas that can be hundreds of kilometres wide, producing even more detailed observations of our galaxy and beyond.

DSS43 supports radio astronomy observations of the Universe. Image: CDSCC/CSIRO/A. Cherney.

Voyager’s mission to the giant planets and beyond

The longest lived of all the missions DSS43 has supported are the twin robotic spacecraft, Voyager 1 and 2. They completed their Grand Tour of the Solar System in 1989 after exploring Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

DSS43 supported every encounter, returning amazing data and images of the gas giant planets and their ring structures. Additionally, the antenna captured the data on their collections of strange moons, including worlds of fire and ice, and some with deep oceans that could potentially harbour life.

After 45 years in space, DSS43 is now the only antenna in the world that can still communicate with both Voyager spacecraft as they leave the bounds of our Solar System and head into interstellar space – the space between the stars.

DSS43 will maintain contact with the Voyagers for as long as possible, extending their mission to over 50 years.

Eventually though, even DSS43’s mighty ‘voice’ sending instructions and its enormously sensitive ‘ear’ receiving the Voyagers’ data won’t be enough. The two probes will continue to travel through the cosmos, carrying messages from Earth but without a direct link to their home planet.

NASA’s twin Voyager spacecraft are now in interstellar space. Image: NASA.

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