Space whisperers: the Aussies guiding Cassini’s suicide mission to Saturn

Space whisperers: the Aussies guiding Cassini’s suicide mission to Saturn

Space whisperers: the Aussies guiding Cassini’s suicide mission to Saturn

No September 15, 2017 about 22 hours AEST, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft is going to plunge into the hostile environment of Saturn in a historic but suicidal course.

This is the grand finale of a 20 year mission that has revolutionized our understanding of the solar system and sent home more than a quarter of a million incredible images of Saturn and its moons.

Cassini instruments will run until the last, catching all possible data bytes encounter closest to the planet’s ring before it evaporates.

In 1.2 billion kilometers of a valley on the outskirts of Canberra, Glen Nagle and his colleagues will listen carefully to what he calls the “whispers” of deep space. “I’m going to be there for 24 hours and I’m not going to sleep,” he says enthusiastically.


Nagle (pictured) working in the Canberra Deep Space Communications Complex, also known as Tidbinbilla tracking station, home to four antennas that help monitor and control the numerous spacecraft in our solar system.

Managed by CSIRO, the Australian National Science Agency, but funded by NASA, Tidbinbilla is one of three stations in the NASA Deep Space Network (the others are in California and Madrid) and this is where the Cassini’s latest radio signals are received and broadcast to a global audience.

“We are going to be responsible for capturing the latest data from the Cassini’s breathing,” Nagle said. “It’s going to be a bittersweet moment.

“NASA can not do it without us, because the other stations are completely oriented in the wrong direction.” Saturn will be in our sky, our field of vision, literally how the planets line up.


Some and zeros
National parks and crop fields surrounding the monitoring station operated by CSIRO.
National parks and farmers fields surrounding the monitoring station.

All Photos Jonny Weeks
Opened in 1965 Tidbinbilla is a quiet complex surrounded by national parks. It is a place where the murmur of mobile antennas and occasional public address announcements are the only sounds that mark the silence.

The dishes are surprisingly small dwarfs by nature, but their top scale is impressive. The largest is 70m in diameter and 109m through its curvature – “which could launch a football field,” said Nagle – and weighs about 4,000 tons. They are almost parabolic surfaces perfect mm.

Each dish is both a giant ear and a giant speaker, informing spaceships, to ensure their health and collect data. The plates work day and night, the sky is clear to the naked eye or not.

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