The NASA Deep Space Network is a network of antennas supporting interplanetary spacecraft movements, radio and radar astronomy observations and various earth orbiting missions.
To achieve 24 hour monitoring NASA maintains three deep space communication facilities placed at around 120 degrees apart around the world; Gladstone in California’s Mojave Desert, Madrid in Spain and here at Tidbinbilla here in Canberra.
The Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex (CDSCC) opened in the 1960s and is managed by CSIRO – the Australian Government’s scientific organisation. The CDSCC has three operational antenna with two new ones under construction and is currently monitoring over 40 missions including the Cassini spacecraft at Saturn, the Messenger spacecraft travelling to Mars, New Horizons en route to Pluto in addition to Voyager I and II which have been in space for over 30 years.
The Complex previously supported US human space flight programs including the Apollo missions to the Moon, the Skylab space station and early flights of the Space Shuttle.
Given the sensitivity of this equipment access to the antennas is not possible but you can certainly have a decent look at them albeit it from a distance.
The visitors centre is certainly worth a visit and especially so if you have kids in tow.
The primary purpose of the centre is to let visitors learn about the role that Australia plays in the exploration of space. This is done via real images from space, models, documentaries and numerous displays.
Given that NASA owns and finances the complex it has numerous exhibits which it might not otherwise have. Seeing these is, for me, the highlight of a visit here and makes it well worth the 40 minutes drive out of Canberra (though I recommend you combine the CDSCC with a visit to nearby Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve only a few kilometres away – see my separate tip on the Reserve).
Some of the interesting items on display here are:
A piece of moon rock – 3.8 billion years old and brought back to earth by an Apollo mission
A colour TV Camera from the US Command Module from the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project mission
Space Shuttle thermal protection tiles (used on Columbia and Challenger missions) built to withstand atmospheric re-entry temperatures of 1650 degrees centigrade
Astronaut food from the Space Shuttle program – recall what this looks like before your write your next negative restaurant review.
For the inquisitive among you, you can also find out the answer the Complex’s most frequently asked question – How do people pee in space? And the answer is …….. well you’ll just have to visit to find out.
The Complex has a small café aptly named The Moon Rock Café which is fairly basic though fine for a quick bite to eat. The café also has a few souvenir knickknacks for sale. If you want something a little more classy, food-wise, head for the café in the Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve visitor centre which can be visited without actually paying the entrance fee to enter the park though it would be a shame not to visit it.
While the CDSCC is only a 40 minute drive from Canberra city centre please be careful as it is along a very winding road which is very popular with cyclists.
9am to 5pm every day except Christmas Day (25 December). The Moon Rock Café is open 9am to 4pm on the same days.
Entrance Fee: Free
421 Discovery Drive, Tidbinbilla - off Cotter & Paddys River Roads
GPS coordinates: -35.39972,148.97086
This is more generally known as Tidbinbilla Tracking Station. It is one of three main NASA tracking stations around the world (the Deep Space Network) set up for tracking deep space probes. It also provides back-up communication with manned space activities from the former Apollo missions to the Space Shuttle and Space Station. The main dish (seen in the main photo) is enormous and several other smaller (but still large) dishes are spread around the complex.
Tidbinbilla tracking station has a small but very good display area with models of space probes (the full-size replica Mars rover is very impressive - see second photo), the latest space photographs, and real 'used' space hardware. You also can watch a space movie. The display is open to the public every day - entry is free. There also is a small souvenir shop and cafe with windows overlooking the big dishes (see "restaurants" tip).
The address is Discovery Drive, Tidbinbilla. Follow Tourist Drive 5 from Canberra - from the north via Cotter and Paddy's River Roads; from the south via Point Hutt Crossing Rd and Tidbinbilla Rd. It is about 45 minutes' travelling from the city.
Open daily (except Christmas Day) from 0900 - 1700. The cafe is open 1000-1700.
Mount Stromlo, just outside Canberra’s south western suburbs, began in 1924 as the site for the Commonwealth Solar Observatory. In 1946 it became a stellar astronomy observatory and since 1957 has been part of the Australian National University School of Astronomy and Astrophysics. Canberra people have always held it in great affection as a popular tourist drive and the gleaming white telescope domes were a part of the horizon.
The firestorms of January 2003 destroyed all but one of the telescopes at Mt Stromlo, as well as the workshops, design and administration offices, library and archives; even the elegant old Director’s residence, built in the late 1920s. Some of the saddest losses were the 74inch reflector, built in 1954 and until 1974 the largest telescope in the southern hemisphere; and the 26inch Yale-Columbia refractor telescope, used to measure the distances and motions of stars.
Ever so slowly, Mt Stromlo is being rebuilt (see travelogue). The visitor information centre and café are now open and, if nothing else, you can see the ruins of what used to be. Entry is free. Visiting hours are Wednesday - Sunday 1000 - 1700 (except Christmas Day). Weather permitting, there are night programmes for visitors on Saturday (but you must book through the phone number below).
One of the real highlights of the Tidbinbilla Tracking Station display (prior tip) is to see the piece of genuine moon rock, brought back by the Apollo astronauts. It is a curious feeling to be able to peer closely at the unexciting looking piece of 3.8 billion year old grey rock and to think of the excitement of returning it and the cost involved in doing so. And how strange it is to watch young people, born since the moon landings, wander past it with so little curiousity (guess it's just 'old news')!
This place is FANTASTIC for people of all ages, but especially kids. There's plenty to see and do there if you're interested in space. The best thing about it is it's free!
You can go on guided tours of the space tracking station, adjust your watch to the "actual" time on their super accurate clock.
It's a sight to behold watching the satellite dish move - although I'm warning you to hold your ears as it's a piercingly loud sound!
Lots of fun that not many people seem to partake in, set aside a day to take in the sights and fully explore this gem.