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, 130 kilometres north-east of Perth 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.
The European Space Agency (ESA) control centre in Darmstadt, Germany will continue to remotely control its spacecraft and satellites via the station.
A 35-metre antenna at the tracking station, DSA-1, provides support to ESA’s missions exploring our solar system.
It tracks their locations, sends commands to control spacecraft, and reliably receives data collected hundreds of millions of kilometres from Earth.
These missions include BepiColombo, which was launched in October 2018, and will explore Mercury.
It will endure temperatures in excess of 350°C.
The missions also include 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 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.
The New Norcia station also provides critical tracking services for Ariane, Soyuz and Vega launchers lifting off from Europe’s Spaceport at Kourou, French Guiana.
The contract is due to start in June 2019, with a three-month handover from the current contractor starting in March 2019.
Australian 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,” said Andrews.
“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,” said Andrews.
CSIRO chief executive Larry Marshall said this will see further support for the exploration of the solar system and help to build up more data and knowledge to inform our understanding of the universe.
“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,” said Marshall.
Together, the three stations provide global coverage for continuous monitoring of spacecraft.