The New Horizons space probe will be the first to ever take close-up imagery of Pluto. (NASA/JHUAPL) Tweet Facebook Mail Not since receiving images of Neil Armstrong’s first footsteps on the lunar surface has Australia’s participation in space exploration been so important. On the 14th of July at approximately 9:49pm AEST, the New Horizons space probe will be rocketing past Pluto at over 14 kilometres per second, a fleeting visit to one of the greatest mysteries of our Solar System. No space probe has ever visited Pluto – a distant celestial body that was once considered to be the ninth planet, but since reclassified as a ‘dwarf planet’. Is this what the surface of Pluto will look like? (NASA/JHUAPL) (NASA/JHUAPL)Until this year, our view of the surface has been restricted to the vaguest of shadows and depressions on the surface, posing more questions than answers for astronomers and the wider scientific community. The encounter with Pluto and its moons will provide the first ever close-up images of the surface, ending nearly a century of speculation and hearsay about what may be found there. The icy body will slowly rise in Australia’s eastern skies just as the probe enters the Pluto system, placing our continent in direct line-of-sight with the important stream of telemetry and scientific curiosities. The Canberra Deep Space Communications Complex is home to several large radio telescopes used for communicating with distant spacecraft. (CDSCC/NASA) (CDSCC/NASA)No other location on Earth will be capable of communicating with the probe at this pivotal moment, and the world will be counting on the expert team of engineers and scientists at the Canberra Deep Space Communications Complex (CDSCC) to make sure the encounter is trouble-free. Related'Mystery' photos unexplained: Utah monolith, UFOs, pyramids on the moon, the time-travelling hipster and other unsolved modern day phenomenaMysterious silver monolith found in Utah desert disappearsSupermassive black hole 2000 light years closer than we thoughtGlen Nagle, Education and Public Outreach Manager at the CDSCC, told 9news.com.au that Australia’s role in this mission is vital.“CDSCC, along with our sister stations located near Madrid, Spain and Goldstone, California are the only communication systems on Earth with the technologies and capabilities to relay commands and receive data from spacecraft at such enormous distances from Earth.”92 engineers, technicians and spacecraft communicators in Canberra will ensure the safety of the New Horizons probe as it rockets through the busy Pluto system. (NASA/JHU APL/SwRI/Steve Gribben) (NASA/JHU APL/SwRI/Steve Gribben)“Without a facility like ours… no one would be able to leave Earth behind, send information to their spacecraft for it to do any exploration or receive the amazing science data and discoveries they make.”The Deep Space Network (DSN) allows continuous coverage of space probes at virtually any point in the solar system, including the extremely distant twin Voyager space probes, currently trail-blazing through the extreme outer limits of the Solar System towards interstellar space. Mr Nagle said that the team at CDSCC has been undergoing vigorous exercises and simulations provided by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in preparation for the encounter.NASA's New Horizons probe, shortly before it was launched on the rocket Atlas V 551 rocket in January 2006. (AAP) (AAP)“The teams go through ‘what if’ scenarios. For example, what would the team do if the spacecraft returned an anomalous signal or was lost completely, what could be done to recover the spacecraft?”The coverage provided by the CDSCC also contributes to the safe navigation of New Horizons through deep space, allowing for last-minute trajectory corrections if the spacecraft is seen to approach any of Pluto’s five moons or other previously undiscovered debris. While all three stations (Canberra, Madrid and Goldstone) are capable of communicating with New Horizons, the rotation of the Earth means that the CDSCC will potentially be the first station to receive close-up images of Pluto’s surface.DSS 43 is the largest steerable parabolic antenna in the southern hemisphere, and is used to make contact with distant probes such as New Horizons. (CDSCC/NASA) ((CDSCC/NASA))Mr Nagle said that, “given the timing of the approach week and encounter day, it is likely that (the CDSCC) will get some of the very first close images of Pluto.”This is reminiscent of Australia’s most well-known role in space exploration: the relaying of television signals from Apollo 11, the first manned lunar landing. With the combined efforts of radio telescopes in Tidbinbilla, Honeysuckle Creek and Parkes, the world was able to capture the incredible moment live on their television screens.'The Dish', starring Sem Neill and Kevin Harrington, dramatised the important role that Australia played in receiving the first television pictures from the Moon. (Working Dog Productions/Roadshow Entertainment)The drama and historical importance of this moment was captured in the 2000 Australian film ‘The Dish’ featuring Sam Neill and directed by Rob Sitch. Unlike Apollo 11, the New Horizons space probe will not send images back to Earth ‘live’ from Pluto.For one thing, the enormous distance of the spacecraft from Earth means there is a significant delay in communications.The entire spacecraft must turn and point at Earth to communicate. (NASA/JHUAPL) (NASA/JHUAPL)A message from New Horizons currently takes four and a half hours to transmit through the emptiness of space. Similarly, it takes four and a half hours for the technicians at any of the Deep Space Network stations to send instructions to the spacecraft, as Mr Nagle explains:“Each time you receive or transmit to the spacecraft, you have to calculate not where the spacecraft is, but where it was or will be given the time delay, so that your antenna is pointed in the right place to either receive the signal or send the signal to.”New Horizons captured this spectacular plume of volcanic debris erupting from Io, a moon of Jupiter. (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute) ((NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute))And after traveling such a vast distance, the signals sent back from the probe are extremely weak.“A signal from New Horizons is about 20 billion times weaker than the power of a watch battery by the time we receive it here on Earth.”The weak signals sent from New Horizons are almost lost amongst the background noise of the universe, hence the need for the massive antennas at each of the three DSN sites.Part of New Horizon's journey took it past massive gas giant Jupiter, as well as Io, one of its many moons. (NASA/JHUAPL) (NASA/JHUAPL)The CDSCC will typically utilise either of the 34-metre diameter radio telescopes or the mammoth 70-metre diameter dish to contact New Horizons. 2015 will be a busy year for Australia’s space centre, which celebrates its 50th anniversary on the 19th of March.The complex currently maintains communications with probes scattered across nearly every planet in the Solar System and beyond, from the MESSENGER probe currently orbiting Mercury to the plethora of robotic explorers on and around Mars, and all the way out to the relatively ancient Voyager space probes as they reach out into interstellar space, more than 37 years after departing Earth.New Horizons will finally unlock the mysteries of dwarf-planet Pluto. (NASA/NSSDC) (NASA/NSSDC)The CDSCC is also closely monitoring the progress of another intrepid explorer – the Dawn spacecraft, which is expected to enter orbit around dwarf planet Ceres next month. In anticipation of such an important year, Mr Nagle praised the team in Canberra for their professionalism and commitment. “CDSCC currently employers 92 of some of the best engineers, technicians and spacecraft communicators anywhere in the world. They are an all-Australian team who are incredibly dedicated to what they do.”“We have a saying in the DSN – Don’t Leave Earth Without Us.”
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