6 mins read 25 Mar 2021

Parkes Radio Telescope to Assist In Commercial Lunar Missions

The CSIRO has just signed a five-year contract with Houston-based private aerospace company, Intuitive Machines, to utilise the iconic Parkes radio telescope for upcoming missions that will see the return of human exploration of the Moon.

Artist illustration of Intuitive Machine’s Nova-C Moon-landing spacecraft on the Lunar surface. Credit: Intuitive Machines.

Australia’s iconic Parkes radio telescope, owned and operated by Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO, will once again be assisting with communicating to spacecraft which are soon to be headed to the Moon, as part of NASA’s new commercial exploration objectives.

Colloquially known as The Dish and now also known by its Wiradjuri name, Murriyang, the 64m radio telescope located in the NSW town of Parkes will later this year be providing ground station communications support for Intuitive Machines – the first company that will take flight under NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload (CLPS) initiative.

The CSIRO has now signed a five-year agreement with the private commercial company to support several Lunar missions, including this maiden operation that is set to take off before the end of 2021. The telescope was selected to maximise the return of scientific and engineering data from exploring the regions around our closest celestial neighbour.

NASA’s CLPS program incorporates several commercial providers, like Intuitive Machines, that have been selected to contract transportation services to send small robotic landers to what is expected to be water and mineral-rich regions of the Moon’s south pole, to look for the abundance of these resources, test new technologies and perform science activities.

This program is one of the leading objectives in the overarching goals of returning humans to the Moon by the US space agency, which will see the first woman and next man take their first steps on the Lunar surface within the decade.

It won’t be the first time that the Parkes radio telescope will have been utilised for its advantageous position in the southern hemisphere. Its large, paraboloid design and world-class receiver instruments also make it the ideal candidate for acquiring incoming radio signals from spacecraft all across the Solar system – including those that will be carrying humans to the Moon in the near future.

CSIRO Chief Executive Dr Larry Marshall said the partnership was an exciting new chapter for the iconic Dish, with the partnership tapping into CSIRO’s expertise and proven track record supporting spacecraft programs.

“It was 50 years ago that Australia played a critical role in the original Moon mission, but innovation never sleeps, so we’re proud to support the latest innovations heading to the Moon’s surface,” Dr Marshall said

“Australia is growing a vibrant space industry, underpinned by our unique strengths in agriculture, mining, and materials, and because we know innovation thrives on collaboration, we’re supporting the entire international space community.”

CSIRO’s Acting Chief Scientist Dr Sarah Pearce said CSIRO was proud to have its world-class scientific facilities be part of the global team that will help Intuitive Machines and NASA deliver science instruments to the Moon.

“Along with NASA’s Honeysuckle Creek station near Canberra, the Parkes radio telescope helped share the Apollo 11 Moon landing with more than 600 million people around the world. And now we are proud to support the first companies extending their reach to the Moon’s surface, advancing knowledge that can benefit life both on Earth and, one day, on the Moon,” Dr Pearce said.

“Australia is growing a vibrant and respected space industry, underpinned by world-class national infrastructure and a long history in enabling space exploration. This is another example of Australian capability supporting the international space community.”

The New Moon Race

Topographic maps of the moon highlighting variability of resources. Credit: USGS.

NASA’s CLPS program was announced in 2018, with an open request for private commercial operators to submit their proposals that would address key objectives for future Lunar exploration – the ability to survey, learn from, extract, and potentially utilise resources from the surface of the Moon.

Recent studies have showcased that the south Lunar poles contain deep craters where vast volumes of water ice remain, which makes the region a prime target for future exploration missions that will host humans. The plan here is to eventually use this water ice (i.e. frozen H2O) to separate the hydrogen into a fuel resource, and oxygen into a resource to generate breathable air, amongst other uses.

This would negate the need to have to take these resources from the Earth in the first place, thus reducing the cost and risks associated with launching such heavy payloads to head to the Moon.

From the submissions, three companies were awarded lander contracts: Astrobotic Technology, OrbitBeyond, and finally Intuitive Machines.

Rendition of the Intuitive Machine’s Nova-C spacecraft, as it leaves Earth and heads towards the Moon. Credit: Intuitive Machines.

For their part, Houston-based Intuitive Machines (founded in 2013), were awarded \$77 million from NASA to develop the Nova-C lander which is expected to head for the Moon in October 2021 aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

The spacecraft, which uses a methane/LOX autonomous propellant system will test vertical takeoff, cruising and vertical landing capabilities, whilst continually running hazard detection technology.

Additionally, the lander will be carrying five small NASA payload experiments that will explore and test in-situ utilisation of the natural resources located on the Moon, exploring the local geography and testing the technology for future missions.

Intuitive Machines Vice President for Control Centres Dr Troy LeBlanc said being the first commercial company to land on the Moon is a huge communications challenge.

“We require the technical support and expertise of the team at CSIRO’s Parkes radio telescope to provide mission tracking and data downlink services.

“CSIRO’s Parkes telescope adds significant data downlink capability to Intuitive Machines’ robust Lunar Telemetry, Tracking and Command Network.

“The successful use of the Network for these initial missions will underpin the return of humans to the Moon and ultimately sustainable presence under the Artemis program.”

The Ongoing Role of the Parkes Radio Telescope

Composite image of the southern night sky over the CSIRO Parkes radio telescope. Credit: CSIROscope/CSIRO.

CSIRO’s Parkes radio telescope has over the last 60 years of its operations continually played a vital role in communications with spacecraft (human and robotic) as we’ve explored the Solar system, as well as made significant contributions to the field of radio astronomy with many discoveries attributed to The Dish.

This included capturing some of the first data from the Apollo 11 Moon landing event before the iconic images were broadcast to the world, as well as future Apollo missions. In recent times, the telescope has been utilised for several other robotic missions, like the Cassini mission to Saturn which ended in 2017.

Director of CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science Dr Douglas Bock said the agreement with Intuitive Machines recognises CSIRO’s experience operating large, complex spacecraft tracking and radio astronomy infrastructure.

“Our Parkes radio telescope began supporting space missions in 1962, when it tracked the first interplanetary space mission, Mariner 2, as it flew by the planet Venus,” Dr Bock said.

“Most recently, the telescope received data from Voyager 2 as it entered interstellar space, supporting the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex – which we also manage for NASA.”

“Operating as a ground station for space missions complements the astronomy research conducted with the telescope and helps to maintain its capabilities as a world-class research instrument.”