CSIRO To Help Ease NASA'S "Traffic Jam"

6 September 2002

When six spacecraft besiege Mars in early 2004, CSIRO will help NASA catch as much data from them as possible.

The three tracking stations of NASA's Deep Space Network - near Canberra, Madrid in Spain and Goldstone in California - will be working flat out to monitor the Mars craft and several others.

CSIRO oversees the operation of the Canberra station on NASA's behalf. "We've recently upgraded the station," says station Director Mr Peter Churchill. "We can now listen to two spacecraft and talk to one of them, all at the same time through one antenna."

And the Parkes telescope has been contracted to lend a hand by tracking some of the Mars spacecraft and others from November 2003 to February 2004.

NASA's Mars Global Surveyor and Mars Odyssey probes are already orbiting the planet. Four more missions will arrive in 2003-04.

NASA's two robotic Mars Exploration Rovers will be looking for evidence of liquid water and analysing rocks and soil. Nozomi, Japan's first Mars probe, will be studying the upper atmosphere. And Europe's Mars Express will map surface and subsurface structures. It will drop a British lander, Beagle 2, which will search for signs of water and life.

NASA is spending $US54 million ($A100 million) to prepare the Deep Space Network for the coming 'traffic jam'.

The 64-m Parkes telescope has tracked NASA spacecraft from the 1960s through to the 1990s. Its most prominent role, celebrated in the film "The Dish", was supporting the 1969 Apollo 11 Moon landing.

"Our ability to track spacecraft and to build the necessary technology flows from our basic research in radio astronomy," says John Brooks, Assistant Director of CSIRO's Australia Telescope National Facility (ATNF), which operates the Parkes Observatory.

NASA will pay about $A3 million to cover Parkes' tracking time, to build a sensitive new signal receiver, and to upgrade the telescope's surface.

Some of the wire mesh panels in the outer part of the dish will be replaced with more even ones of perforated aluminium sheet, to enlarge the smooth part of dish's surface. This will make the dish more sensitive to signals at 8.4 GHz, the frequency at which the spacecraft will broadcast. The work will be carried out by Sydney Engineering Pty Ltd.

The surface upgrade and the new receiver will double the amount of signal power the telescope can collect at this frequency. "This is a major gain for NASA and for the astronomers from all around the world who use the telescope," says Dr John Reynolds, Officer in Charge at the Parkes Observatory.

Parkes Observatory staff member Mr John Sarkissian will give a free public lecture on the history of the Parkes telescope's involvement in space tracking at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra on Sunday 29 September, 2:00-3:30 p.m.

More information

Mr John Brooks, CSIRO Australia Telescope National Facility 02-9372-4227

Mr Peter Churchill, Canberra Deep Space Communications Complex 02-6201-7819

Dr John Reynolds, Officer-in-Charge, CSIRO Parkes Observatory 02-6861-1733

Mr John Sarkissian, CSIRO 02-6861-1769

Ms Jodie Cunningham, National Museum of Australia 02-6208-5108

Bookings for Museum lecture 02-6208-5021


Canberra Deep Space Communications Complex (with links to spacecraft missions)

CSIRO Parkes Observatory: http://www.parkes.atnf.csiro.au/

NASA Quicktime movies of a Mars Exploration Rover:

high-resolution file (8.6 MB): ftp://ftp.hq.nasa.gov/pub/pao/movies/rover_t1.mov
medium-resolution file (2.1 MB): ftp://ftp.hq.nasa.gov/pub/pao/movies/rover_56.mov
low-resolution file (386 KB): ftp://ftp.hq.nasa.gov/pub/pao/movies/rover_tiny.mov