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New dish helps spaceships phone home

By David, 22 December 2016 News

A large radio telescope dish.

Canberra has a new dish!

Voyager, Pathfinder, Cassini. Humanity has sent out dozens of plucky little space probes to explore our solar system. But when these robots need to call home, who’s listening in?

Luckily for them, NASA has three deep space communication complexes scattered around the world. One of them is right here in Australia, operated by CSIRO. And they’re celebrating the opening of a brand new dish.

The new dish looks just like a radio telescope, but it’s got some extra abilities. “Our dishes are both receivers and transmitters,” says Glen Nagle, from the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex. “They beam out commands to spacecraft that are hundreds of millions, and even billions of kilometres away from our planet.”

With such huge distances involved, the signal can get very weak. That’s why the dish is 34 metres wide. The huge surface can catch more signal, making it easier to hear distant spacecraft, and it also makes it easier to send instructions back out into space.

Quiet signals are not the only difficulty that comes with distance. “Even at the speed of light, it can take many hours to get a signal,” says Glen. “So when you’re receiving from a spacecraft, you’re not pointed at where it is, you’re pointed at where it was. When you’re transmitting, you’re pointed at where [the spacecraft] is going to be.”

Currently the Deep Space Network only talks to robots, but that might change soon. “Having this new dish will not only support robotic spacecraft,” says Glen. “It will also be supporting NASA sending humans back to the Moon, and particularly on their journey to Mars.”

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