As the world watched NASA complete the world’s first full planetary defense test, few knew the crucial role played by a team on the outskirts of Australia’s national capital.
Most important points:
- The Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex Assisted NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Test
- The Tidbinbilla space tracking station was responsible for relaying the vision for the final hours of the mission
- The tracking station also recorded data from the spacecraft until it hit the asteroid
Operated by the national science agency CSIRO, the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex (CDSCC) has been NASA’s eyes and ears in the final phase of its Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission.
Located southwest of Canberra in the bushland of Tidbinbilla, the CDSCC has measured the spacecraft’s data transmissions since its launch in November 2021 to Tuesday.
DART’s mission was designed to find out if an asteroid was on a collision course with Earth, could it be stopped by changing its speed and trajectory?
This morning, the spacecraft successfully collided with Dimorphos, a moon that orbits a larger asteroid, Didymos.
It is not yet known whether the test was successful in changing the orbit of Dimorphos, with telescopes following to verify whether the test achieved the expected orbital shift of 1 percent.
But Glen Nagle of NASA’s tracking station at the CDSCC said that however small the impact on the asteroid from the DART mission, the data from the test would help us understand how asteroids might be rerouted in the future.
“Today’s impact was to see if we could give a little bit of energy to a small asteroid … and change its orbit around its parent asteroid,” he said.
“Even if we can change it a few feet, that can tell us a lot about what we can do in the future if something comes our way.”
The Critical Role of Tidbinbilla
Mr Nagle said DART relied heavily on the Canberra complex, with two of its giant antenna dishes sending the final commands to the spacecraft as it prepared to crash into the asteroid and record data up to the time of impact. .
The CDSCC’s antennas also received data from the LICIACube — an Italian nanosatellite that captured images of the collision — which provided images from the test.
“DART’s mission today was a one-time opportunity. There’s no return for that spacecraft, it had to slam into that asteroid,” said Mr. Nagle.
“[Our team handled] all the tracking data, all the photos, all the information the scientific team needed, and all the last minute commands to make sure the impact happened successfully, as it did.
“It was only one chance for our team. All those years of work and training to get to this moment and make sure that happened successfully.”
Nagle said it was spectacular to watch the spacecraft crash into Dimorphos.
“To see the incredible images come in live through our antennas here at the tracking station, and see the work our team was doing to send those images straight to mission control and then broadcast them live around the world was great,” he said.
“That little asteroid didn’t know what was coming its way.
“It had an absolute dead end. The energy released from that impact, we’ll see what the results are in the days and weeks to come.”
‘Australians should be proud’
The DART mission is not the first time Australia has been involved in international space exploration.
The Tidbinbilla station has four giant antenna dishes that provide two-way contact with dozens of robotic spacecraft.
It currently supports more than 40 missions from other countries, including India, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand and more than 20 European countries.
Since the 1960s, NASA space tracking stations across the country have tracked every interplanetary probe exploring the solar system and beyond.
The Tidbinbilla Tracking Station is a critical part of NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN) because of its position in the Southern Hemisphere.
The DSN has two other main offices, in Madrid, Spain and Goldstone, California.
“Our station is … one of only three places in the world that has 24-hour coverage from every spacecraft exploring our solar system and beyond,” said Mr. Nagle.
He said the DART mission was an example of Australia’s important role in deep space exploration.
“Today Australians should be proud of the role other Aussies have played in space exploration,” he said.