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Lending an Improved Ear
The dish is in a rural setting near the town of Parkes, Australia.
The dish is in a rural setting near the town of Parkes, Australia.

With the help of friends down under, calling home is about to get easier.

Thanks to a series of upgrades, the Parkes Radio Telescope in Australia, celebrated by the movie "The Dish" for its role in the first moonwalk, will once again help communicate with spacecraft exploring the solar system.

Owned by the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, the 64-meter (210-foot) antenna is located near the town of Parkes, Australia. With NASA-funded upgrades to handle the current deep space transmission standards, Parkes' will take on some of the workload of NASA's Deep Space Network. The Deep Space Network is the largest telecommunications system in the world. With antennas in Spain, Australia and California's Mojave Desert, the Deep Space Network is a network of antennas that allow us to have two-way communications with spacecraft at all times. JPL is overseeing the Parkes upgrades and integrating Parkes into the Deep Space Network for several months of operations.

Communications Crunch

The installation of additional solid paneling will improve the antenna's performance.
The installation of additional solid paneling will improve the antenna's performance.

Starting this coming November and peaking in January 2004, an unprecedented fleet of spacecraft will require communications for critical maneuvers. Among the potential users of the Parkes antenna are NASA's Mars Odyssey, the Mars Global Surveyor, the distant Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, the Stardust mission, the recently launched Space Infrared Telescope Facility and the European Mars Express.

"Parkes will be used to provide backup support for a large number of critical mission events and also to provide coverage for missions that would otherwise receive none during periods of conflicts," said Gary Spradlin, deputy manager of scheduling for the Deep Space Network Plans and Commitments Office at JPL.

Although not part of the Deep Space Network, the Parkes antenna has been used by NASA before to support the Apollo moon missions, the Galileo spacecraft orbiting Jupiter, and both Voyager missions during their grand tour of the solar system.

The major improvement is adding a microwave system that allows for reception in the X-band frequency currently used by all JPL missions. The X-band frequency has a larger spectrum that allows more data to be transmitted. Better performance will also be achieved by extending the antenna's solid paneling by 10 meters (about 33 feet).

Glorious Past, Movie Star Status

Parkes will be a backup for the three Deep Space Network facilities around the world. The antenna networks work together to maintain constant communications with distant spacecraft.
Parkes will be a backup for the three Deep Space Network facilities around the world. The antenna networks work together to maintain constant communications with distant spacecraft.

Thanks to the movie "The Dish," the Parkes Radio Telescope may be the world's best-known antenna. The giant dish surrounded by sheep and green fields was featured in the film about the hectic days preceding the first human landing on the Moon.

As Neil Armstrong stepped onto the Moon's surface, an estimated 600 million people were glued to the television. Searching for the best quality images, NASA alternated between three tracking stations during the first minutes of the telecast. Parkes' TV pictures, however, were of superior quality, and NASA remained with Parkes for the remainder of the 2 1/2-hour telecast.

Starting in late September a series of tests will be conducted, and by the end of October, Parkes should be ready to start supporting spacecraft tracking activities.

After giving us Armstrong's moonwalk, commonly referred to as "the best live television show in history," the "dish" in the middle of nowhere will be ready to bring us a feast of stunning images to fill anyone's appetite.

Related Links:
Deep Space Network
Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Last Updated: 2 March 2011

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Last Updated: 2 Mar 2011