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A visit to the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex, NASA's only Southern Hemisphere Deep Space Network station
Airbag
post Apr 6 2010, 01:50 AM
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Via the wonders of this forum and intercontinental jet travel I had the opportunity and great pleasure to meet Astro0 (0 not as in "zero", but as in "naught" - get it? I didn't!) in person at the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex at Tidbinbilla. We'd probably think of it as a Deep Space Network (DSN) tracking station though. I was going to be on vacation in Canberra and we had exchanged some forum messages before hand, and Astro0 kindly invited us to the DSN site for a behind the scenes tour. Well, now there was an offer I could not refuse!

So together with my wife and some members of the family we were staying with in Canberra we headed off to the DSN site, which is about half an hour away. The road winds through gently rolling hills and green meadows, it looked almost like England...except that it had rained a lot just before we arrived, and normally this is all dry and brown. And there are kangaroos. Many of them! Then all of a sudden we came to another valley and there they were...the dishes, gleaming white. They are in the valley to shield them from terrestrial interference; the higher horizon is not so much a restriction for deep space communications as it would be for near Earth operations.

My first thought, I have to admit, was "So where is the 70m dish"? as I could not see any really big ones. But it was right there in front of me - the size of the thing is just so hard to interpret without anything nearby to compare it with. More on that later. Note the interesting sign near the entrance:

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We met Astro0 in the visitors center, and after initial introductions he led us out through a "secret" door (well, the story sounds better this way) to the complex itself and we picked up our badges and without further ado headed off to DSS-43, the 70m diameter dish, which is the largest of its type in the Southern Hemisphere. Astro0 told us all about the difficulties in maintaining these huge dishes and how the main azimuth bearing was being replaced (a tricky and complex operation) on another such DSN dish elsewhere. I should note that the Canberra DSN site has an enviable reputation for the best uptime and communications record, and they are justifiably proud of that!

The 70m dish is just too big to comprehend. You stand under it, and without anything else to compare it with nearby it is just so hard to tell just how big it is. At the time we were there is was doing a long tracking pass of Voyager 2. If you looked very, very carefully, you could see the entire dish and support structure rotate in a counter clockwise direction as it was tracking Voyager 2. That also told us we were in the Southern Hemisphere, as if the kangaroos and Astro0's accent weren't enough of a clue :-).

But when you think about it (as we did after Astro0 pointed it out to us), it is not actually the dish that was moving - since Voyager 2 is so far away that it is essentially at rest with respect to the background stars, what we were seeing was the Earth's rotation, and the dish was actually one of the most un-moving things around! So what is it like to stand underneath that 70m dish?

Attached File  DSS_43_qt_vr.mov ( 783.76K ) Number of downloads: 157


There is a complex structure at the focal point of the dish; that tower (containing various receivers and transmitters) looks to me like an upside down rocket engine and is about 5 storeys tall, to give you some sense of the size of the dish.

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[continued in next post]
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Airbag
post Apr 6 2010, 01:57 AM
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[continued from previous post]

The front and rear of DSS-43:

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The roads in the complex all have names that forum members would all totally understand and approve of. Here we are next to one of the signs, pointing at the locations of Voyagers 1 (Astro0) and 2 (Airbag). What, you mean you don't stand at intersections pointing at distant spacecraft too?!

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Next was DSS-34, at the far end of the complex and at a slightly higher elevation which also made it a good place to look back at the entire complex. Here is a MER style pano of the site from that location; you can just see DSS-46 (more later) pointing straight up towards the left hand side, then (to the right) the 70m dish and then nearby DSS-34. The other 34m dish, DSS-45 is to the right of this pano and we did not get close to it. We did see it do a fast (it is all relative!) slew in elevation though. You can also see how the site is located in a valley.

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From the brochure: "DSS-34 is a beam wave guide antenna. The 34 meter dish reflects signals from deep space to receiving equipment located underground.". On the picture below you can clearly see the wide wave guide and the locations of the reflectors. Note that this is very different from the other dishes of the complex, which have their RF equipment mounted on the dish itself. There are trade offs of course - losses incurred by the extra reflectors versus the weight and complexity of the having all the equipment as part of the moving dish structure.


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We then headed out to DSS-46, a 26m dish, which has a really interesting history. It used to be located at Honeysuckle Creek, and for you Apollo fans this was the actual dish used to receive the TV signals from that first moon walk. Ignore the "Dish" from the movie of the same name, that was the Parkes (radio) telescope! I'm old enough to remember the name "Honeysuckle Creek" being mentioned on the live TV reports during Apollo days. Quite something, to now see that dish in person. This dish is no longer used, but Astro0 has great outreach and educational plans for it - that would seem to be a fitting retirement use for such a proud background.

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Because things were relatively quiet Astro0 was able to guide us into a gallery overlooking the operations room. Well, if you have seen any IT type control room with people sitting at desks with many monitors in front of them, you know what it looks like. Except there are posters of space missions, and certificates of appreciations for helping missions, etc. :-) No cameras allowed there but one of the main screens was also echoed (a nice touch I thought) in the visitor centre - it showed the high level schedule for each of the dishes. As you can see, DSS-43 was in the middle of an 11 hour Voyager 2 tracking pass:

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Back into the official visitor center for some refreshments, before Astro0 took us on a whirl wind tour of the exhibits. There was a lot to see and many really interesting exhibits - where to start? How about a full size MER model, set in a realistic Martian landscape? As we were talking about the MER mission various other visitors drifted by and listened in and ask questions etc. Some instant outreach - Steve S. would have been happy to see our enthusiasm and excitement for the MER mission in action!

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Many other memorable exhibits...a sizeable chunk of Moon rock weighing 142.25grams (about a third of a pound!) from Apollo 11...

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Airbag
post Apr 6 2010, 02:00 AM
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[continued from previous post]

... a LEM descent engine complete with very smooth gimbal mount (I think it was an engineering model as the engine's upper nozzle and cylindrical thrust chamber cover were made of composites rather than some metal alloy as I have seen in other photos - but I could be wrong)...

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... heat shield samples from flown Mercury and Shuttle mission, Gemini and ISS food samples, a space suit, and one of Astro0's discoveries in a store room - a video camera that flew on the Apollo Soyuz docking (ASTP) mission and may even have been the one to film that historic first US-Soviet handshake in orbit.

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I am sure there are many other things Astro0 showed us and other interesting facts to learn about...any such omissions here are of course entirely due to my jet-lag sleep deprived memory.

Just to end with a big, BIG thanks to Astro0 for spending so much of his time with us, and for being able to almost pick and chose when we could come over. We all really enjoyed the visit and learned a lot and frankly it was all way more than I expected. An amazing visit, and Astro0's enthusiasm and knowledge were a big part of that.

Airbag

PS If you go to Canberra, make sure to visit the nearby Tidbinbilla Nature Preserve - it is a really nice place and you will see many local animals and plants and trees etc.

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nprev
post Apr 6 2010, 03:05 AM
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Whoa!!! What a terrific experience! Thanks for sharing this with us; man, I'm jealous! smile.gif



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mdinn
post Apr 7 2010, 11:07 AM
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Hi -- I'm Mike Dinn. My last job before retirement in 1994 (25th anniversary of Apollo 11) was as Directotor of CDSCC Tidbinbilla. Just stumbled on this group via a reference to "Honeysuckle Creek' where I was in charge of operations through the major part of Apollo. My first job in spacecraft tracking, at Tidbinbilla, was in 1966 -- in charge of operations for Surveyor 1.

So -- I might be able to field queries re Australian tracking in general, and in particular Surveyor, Pioneer, Apollo, Voyager in the 80s, and the early days of Galileo

I have some memorabilia at http://members.pcug.org.au/~mdinn/apollomem/index.htm and within http://www.honeysucklecreek.net/

Mike
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Astro0
post Apr 7 2010, 01:46 PM
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Nice to have you onbaord Mike.
I hope you enjoy the Forum discussion.

For all you UMSF'ers out there...this is a man to respect for the role he has played in the space history we have all grown up with. smile.gif
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Stu
post Apr 7 2010, 02:42 PM
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Welcome to UMSF Mike! smile.gif

And GREAT report on your visit, by the way, Airbag! Sounds like you had a fantastic time and that Astro0 was a great host too (no surprise there! smile.gif )


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ElkGroveDan
post Apr 7 2010, 04:58 PM
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QUOTE (Astro0 @ Apr 7 2010, 05:46 AM) *
For all you UMSF'ers out there...this is a man to respect for the role he has played in the space history we have all grown up with. smile.gif


Good. Maybe he can tell us what happened to those original Apollo 11 EVA videos. Out with it Mike. Someone lost them in a poker game I'll bet. wink.gif


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stevesliva
post Apr 7 2010, 08:37 PM
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QUOTE (mdinn @ Apr 7 2010, 07:07 AM) *


A very cool site with a different perspective on things. Anyone with even a slight tendency towards nostalgia would enjoy poking around in there.
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Airbag
post Apr 7 2010, 08:51 PM
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Indeed! And if you do nothing else, read some of the stories.

Airbag
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Mixer
post Apr 9 2010, 06:11 AM
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WAY cool post. I just got back from a trip with wife and kids in tow... Went to Parkes, the AAT at Coonabarabran, and the Australia Telescope at Narrabri, as well as the Virtual Solar System drive to Coonabarabran which was also cool, especially for the kids.

Tidbinbilla is on the list now for the next trip!!!
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PDP8E
post Mar 28 2012, 09:05 PM
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Here is very pretty sunrise at Canberra DSN (just moments ago...!)
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Astro0 posted a link or two (some time ago) to see the progress, here is one:

http://deepspace.jpl.nasa.gov/dsn/images/r...me/latestC2.jpg


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Astro0
post Mar 28 2012, 09:29 PM
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Yes, it's a lovely morning here in Canberra.
Here's the 70metre antenna just a few minutes ago. smile.gif

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PDP8E
post Apr 6 2012, 09:45 PM
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I wrote a little script that takes a peek every once in a while at the Canberra webcam while they build a new DSN dish. I stash the images away in a directory with the hopes that someday I will have the time and skills to do a time lapse movie of the construction. On 2012, day 95, at 5:57am local time I captured this.... AstroO, you might have bugs in your system.... rolleyes.gif (I tried to focus in, and shrunk the image size a little to get better resolution of the visitor )
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Stu
post Apr 6 2012, 11:33 PM
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oh...my...GOD... That's ***hideous***!!!!!!

ohmy.gif ohmy.gif ohmy.gif ohmy.gif ohmy.gif



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