Friday, 14 December 2018 10:06

CSIRO supports European Space Agency at WA tracking station

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ESA tracking station New Norcia, Western Australia ESA tracking station New Norcia, Western Australia

Australia’s national science agency CSIRO has been selected to provide maintenance and operational support for the European Space Agency’s deep space tracking station at New Norcia in Western Australia.

This is the first time that an Australian organisation has been selected to manage day-to-day operations at the ground station which is located 130 kilometres north-east of Perth.

The European Space Agency control centre in Darmstadt, Germany will continue to remotely control its spacecraft and satellites via the station, with a 35-metre antenna at the tracking station, DSA-1, providing support to ESA’s missions exploring the solar system.

The antenna tracks the locations of the spacecraft and satellites and sends commands to control spacecraft, and reliably receives data collected hundreds of millions of kilometres from Earth.

The missions include BepiColombo, which was launched in October 2018 and will explore Mercury — the closest planet to the Sun — where it will endure temperatures in excess of 350°C, and Mars Express, which is currently orbiting the Red Planet collecting information about its geology, atmosphere, surface environment, history of water and potential for life.

ESA’s ExoMars trace gas orbiter and Gaia mission are also supported.

The WA station provides tracking support to scientific and interplanetary missions operated by other international space agencies like NASA and Japan’s JAXA under resource-sharing agreements – and also provides critical tracking services for Ariane, Soyuz and Vega launchers lifting off from Europe’s Spaceport at Kourou, French Guiana.

The CSIRO contract is due to start on 1 June 2019 and a three-month handover from the current contractor will start on 1 March 2019.

Federal Minister for Industry, Science and Technology Karen Andrews said the agreement was another important milestone in the growing Australian space sector.

“Since 1979, Australia and ESA have had treaties in place to enable European Space Agency ground stations on Australian soil to track spacecraft and interplanetary missions and Australia has unique view of the southern hemisphere sky that provides us with a natural advantage for viewing the Universe,” she said.

“The facility at New Norcia has been in operation since 2003 and now, for the first time, an Australian organisation will provide critical maintenance and operational support at the station.

“Through its management of NASA’s Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex, as well as Australia’s leading radio astronomy facilities, CSIRO has rich experience operating large, complex infrastructure for spacecraft tracking and astronomy research.

“This follows the announcement earlier this week that Adelaide will be the location of the Australian Space Agency, and is a further demonstration that momentum is building for the local space industry.

“The space industry plays an essential role in the lives of all Australians, from providing us with weather forecasts and telecommunications, to inspiring the next generation of students."

CSIRO chief executive Dr Larry Marshall welcomed the new relationship with ESA.

“This will see us further support humanity’s exploration of our vast solar system and help to build up more data and knowledge to inform our understanding of the Universe,” Dr Marshall said.

“It builds on our 75 year history of space science and demonstrates our ongoing commitment to growing Australia’s space industry, inspiring the next generation of scientists and driving innovation through global partnerships.

“Understanding the universe and using what we learn to inform our science, create new technologies and fuel jobs and industries of the future is critical for Australia and the world.”

New Norcia is one of three deep space tracking stations in ESA’s global Estrack network, with the other two located in Cebreros, Spain and in Malargüe, Argentina.

Together, the three stations provide global coverage for continuous monitoring of spacecraft.

CSIRO Digital, National Facilities and Collections executive director Dr Dave Williams said ESA’s deep space tracking stations played a similar role to those that make up NASA’s spacecraft tracking network.

“CSIRO operates the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex for NASA, one of three stations that make up the NASA Deep Space Network,” Dr Williams said.

“CSIRO’s operational support of ESA’s New Norcia facility will complement our existing role with NASA and builds on our decades’ worth of experience operating large, complex spacecraft tracking and radio astronomy infrastructure.

“In addition to operating New Norcia for ESA and CDSCC for NASA, we also manage Australia’s leading radio telescopes and are playing a key part in preparing to host the international Square Kilometre Array in Western Australia.”

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Peter Dinham is a co-founder of iTWire and a 35-year veteran journalist and corporate communications consultant. He has worked as a journalist in all forms of media – newspapers/magazines, radio, television, press agency and now, online – including with the Canberra Times, The Examiner (Tasmania), the ABC and AAP-Reuters. As a freelance journalist he also had articles published in Australian and overseas magazines. He worked in the corporate communications/public relations sector, in-house with an airline, and as a senior executive in Australia of the world’s largest communications consultancy, Burson-Marsteller. He also ran his own communications consultancy and was a co-founder in Australia of the global photographic agency, the Image Bank (now Getty Images).

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