6 mins read 02 Sep 2022

Calling in on Australia, from the Moon

Humans are set to return to the Moon this decade, with the upcoming launch of NASA’s Artemis program, and Australia is once again playing a critical role in the exciting project. 

DSS43 - the largest of all antennas at the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex. Credit: Alex Cherney/CCDSC/DSN/CSIRO.

Human space exploration has recently started to surge in popularity once again, 50 years after the last Moon landing, with the prospect that our species will (hopefully) return to our celestial neighbour - the Moon. 

Unlike the bygone Apollo era, in which a large portion of America's GDP was dedicated to winning the Cold War, these days, we’re all trying to be rational, economical, and strategic about it. Tens of billions are still being pumped into the supply chains, but this time, funds are raised from commercial entities which have achieved modern success in human space travel - SpaceX, Blue Origin, Boeing, and more. 

But one particular project has excited everyone - the official American return to the Moon program, Artemis. In mythology, Artemis is the sister of Apollo, and in terms of US space missions, Artemis is the next step for human space exploration beyond Low Earth Orbit. Run by NASA, which is coordinating the work of many contracted commercial and defence suppliers, Artemis will be the mission that will have the first woman, and the next man creates new footprints on Earth’s natural satellite. 

On Monday 29 August 2022, the world held its breath as we watched the countdown clock at NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre in Florida ticking down towards the launch of Artemis I, the uncrewed first of three increasingly complex missions that form part of the program. The aim is to have humans returning to the Moon by the third one, somewhere around the mid-late decade. 

Unfortunately, the countdown clock was stopped at T-40 minutes, as a technical issue with the engine cooling system was enough for engineers to poll a “no-go” result. The saying in the space industry is that it is always better to be safe than sorry - especially so when the investment in Artemis has already ramped into the billions of dollars. An accident on the launch pad would not only be catastrophic for the program, but it would also derail the trust of the American taxpayer, who are partially funding the missions. 

As a historical US-strategic partner in many aspects of space, Australia also has a role to play in this latest adventure, in particular assisting with communication efforts between us and the spacecraft, when it sails into deep space above our hemisphere. Historically, we’ve done this before, with tracking stations at Honeysuckle Creek, then the Parkes radio telescope being instrumental in delivering the first images and data from the historical Apollo 11 Moon landing mission. 

Since then, Australia has established the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex (CDSCC), which is managed by Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO. The complex supports all sorts of programs from NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) from the historic Apollo missions, relaying communications to probes in Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, and even continues (to this day) to make the most long-distance ‘call’ in history - sending instructions and receiving data from the Voyager spacecrafts, which are now tethering out at the edges of our Solar system, 45 years after their launch. 

Voyager 2 as it sails away from the Sun and into interstellar space. Credit: JPL/NASA.

Now, the CDSCC is back in the thick of it again, providing support for the entire Artemis I voyage from launch to splashdown. 

There will be several crucial mission moments, including the deployment of a small fleet of miniature satellites – called CubeSats – that CDSCC will also support with tracking and communications. 

CSIRO Executive Director, Professor Elanor Huntington said CSIRO was proud to be supporting NASA’s return to the Moon. 

“Australia was there for the first Moon landing and CSIRO is excited to be there for when NASA lands the first woman and the first person of colour on the moon in the 2020s. 

“CSIRO’s long-standing relationship with NASA stretches back more than 60 years, creating breakthrough solutions from science, and fuelled by our shared ambition to push the boundaries of imagination to benefit life back on Earth. 

“Our expert team at the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex, and their sister Deep Space Network stations located in Spain and the USA, will provide around-the-clock coverage of the mission,” said Professor Huntington. 

Important upgrades to equipment and the large antennas at CDSCC have been a crucial part of NASA’s plan to prepare for the Artemis program. 

Artemis I will be on a 42-day mission to travel to and orbit the Moon before returning to Earth for a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean in mid-October (pending launch date). 

Our Prime Position in Australia

Canberra DSN Control Room (around Christmas time). Credit: R. Mandow.

Australia has always played a significant role in space missions historically, because of our prime position on Earth. We occupy a hemisphere of the planet that is mostly inaccessible to both the US and EU continents, and so, when we are facing outbound spacecraft - whether they be around the Moon or out in the distant planets - we are in a position to obtain their signals. 

In fact, the CDSCC is part of the Deep Space Network - which features three stations all positioned approx. 120 degrees apart on Earth, which allows for continual coverage as the world rotates (the other two are in Spain and California). In some circumstances, however, Australia is the only DSN that can communicate with certain spacecraft (for example, Voyager 2 is now too far south for any of the other stations to be able to obtain its signal). 

The field of views of the three DSN stations. Credit: SimonOrJ/Wikipedia.

Each of the DSN facilities rosters on to look after all the missions during their allocated time slots, controlling a network of some of the largest steerable radio antennas across the world. The biggest of them all, a 70-metre behemoth that stands as tall as a 50-metre and 25-metre pool, stacked on top of each other. 

The operators that work at stations, like the CDSCC, have been a part of humanity’s space adventures since the very beginning, with a few lucky people who have worked behind the tracking station helm for nearly all missions out to the planets of our Solar system. 

Artemis I is now scheduled to launch in the early hours of September 3 for us here in Australia, and our local teams of space communication specialists and operators will be there, waiting to acquire the signal from the historical first flight that will return humans, back to the Moon.