The New Norcia satellite dish is barely visible as you make your way to the small wheatbelt town of New Norcia , in Western Australia. Like an apparition it appears and disappears in a blink of an eye in the hilly terrain. You would think a huge white dish would look oddly out of place in this quiet farming community, but it is no less strange than the small Spanish style monastic town of New Norcia , which suddenly appears out of the blue, from the seemingly endless wheat fields and farmlands.
European Space Agency
The New Norcia satellite dish belongs to the European Space Agency, who saw New Norcia as the perfect location for their first high tech state-of-the-art deep space ground station project. The ground station’s first role was to be actively involved in the ESA Mars Express project, but the mission ended in tragedy. The dish is currently playing a major role in the Rosetta comet mission.
You Rang ?
So how did a deep space ground station end up in a small farming and monastic community, 150kms from Perth? It all began when a Spanish scientist arrived in New Norcia one Sunday and simply rang the bell of the monastery, to asked if it was possible to build a high tech deep space ground station on their property.
The Benedictine community, who have led the simple life in the area for over 150 years, embraced the idea . To the general observer it would appear to be one of the most unique coming together of the “old ” and “new ” worlds. But the monks and scientists will tell you, it is all working just fine and both are very keen to find out if there are signs of life out there.
It isn’t the first time Western Australia has been involved in satellite communications for NASA and other space agencies. In 1969, the OTC dish in Carnarvon was built for space tracking, during the Apollo missions.
What a Dish !
The construction of the $28 million New Norcia ground Station project began in 2000 with the 100 tonnes space dish finally being lifted into position in 2003 . The dish is extremely accurate and can handle extreme conditions, including 50 degree Celsius temperatures and 45km/per/hr winds. The antenna, which is a key component of the ground station, weighs over 600 tonnes and is over 40m high. This mighty beast can move 540 tonnes of ballast and the 35m wide dish, while still maintaining precision accuracy of its beam.
The New Norcia deep space ground station is one of the first in a network of stations the European Space Agency (ESA) are building around the world. The others stations are located in Kiruna (Sweden), Redu (Belgium), Villafranca (Spain), Maspalomas, Canary Islands (Spain), Perth (Western Australia) and Kourou (French Guiana). Most of the time, the station will be unmanned. Operations will be remotely monitored and controlled from the ESA station in Perth.
NASA’s Rosetta mission
The dish played an integral part of NASA’s Rosetta mission. The mission involved sending the Rosetta spacecraft (along with Philae, its lander module) some 900 million kilometres , to rendezvous with Comet Wirtanen, in 2014 . Once in its orbit the Philae would land on the comet and collect valuable data .
During the mission the New Norcia satellite dish sent commands to the spacecraft and received data back from Rosetta. One of the first tasks for the station was to help Rosetta with gravity assists. In order for the space craft to reach the comet’s orbit , it required gravity assists. This meant several Earth and Mars fly-bys were required for the 10 year journey.
In 2007 there were two gravity assist fly-bys. In early Feburary – March of 2007 the New Norcia station was used by Rosetta for the preparation and execution of its Mars fly-by. The Mars gravity assist was designed to slow the spacecraft down and position it for a subsequent Earth swing-by in November 2007. Sounding a bit complicated ? For more information visit the ESA’s Rosetta website.
In August 2014, Rosetta rendezvoused with the comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. Three months later the Philae spacecraft landed on the comet. It bounced twice and came to rest in the shadow of a cliff. Awks. Being unable to recharge its solar batteries it lost communication with Rosetta after two days. Very brief communication was established between June and July before losing complete contact. Two years later the ESA announced that Rosetta had been landed on the comet and all instruments turned off, ending the mission.
The Mars Express is/was the European Space Agency’s project to search for signs of life (past or present) on Mars. The aim was to send a space craft to the red planet, where it would launch the Beagle 2 lander, a small device, looking something like a pocket watch. When the lander touched down on the surface of Mars the outer casing was designed to open up to reveal a robotic arm, a pair of stereo cameras, a microscope, two types of spectrometer and a torch to illuminate surfaces.
From the Beagle 2, information about the planet would be beamed back to earth. And guess where that information was to be beamed back to ? Yes, that’s right, the deep space ground station in New Norica.
The mission began on the 2nd June 2003, when their $240-million spacecraft was launched in Baikonur, Kazakhstan to begin its six month journey to Mars. The Beagle 2 lander, named after the ship in which Charles Darwin sailed when formulating his ideas about evolution, was successfully launched from the mothership (Mars Express) on 25 December 2003. NASA, the world and New Norcia watched and waited for the first signals to be beamed back to earth.
It never happened. Not even the faintest of signals. The Beagle 2 had simply vanished. In an attempt to try and locate the lander, the Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank was used. Unfortunately things only got worse for everyone working on the project, on December 31, 2003, it was reported that a crater was located in the centre of the target landing site for Beagle 2.
Speculation mounted that the Beagle had landed inside the crater and was unable to transmit from beyond its walls. Final hopes were dashed, when on February 6, 2004, the Beagle 2 was declared lost by the Management Board.
The fate of Beagle 2 remained a mystery until in January 2015 when it was located intact on the surface of Mars. NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter HiRISE camera had snapped images of Beagle 2. The images revealed that two of Beagle 2’s four solar panels had failed to deploy, blocking the communications antenna.