Image: Deep Space Station 43
Jamie Tarabay  /  AP
Australia's Deep Space Station 43, at 70 meters (230 feet) in diameter, is the biggest antenna in the Southern Hemisphere.
updated 2/6/2004 12:59:33 PM ET 2004-02-06T17:59:33

A generation ago, it received pictures of Neil Armstrong walking on the moon. It listened to Viking and Voyager, sending their valuable information home to NASA.

Now its high-tech ears, nestled in the grassy hills outside Australia’s capital, are tuned in to the Mars rovers.

When Spirit landed Jan. 3, the first images it shot were transmitted here and then forwarded 7,680 miles (12,300 miles) to Mission Control in Pasadena, Calif.

NASA uses similar arrays of giant radio dishes in California and Spain. Each cluster of dish antennas in NASA’s Deep Space Network ensures the American space agency can keep in contact with its farflung spacecraft, even as the earth spins on its axis.

“As the world turns, there’s always a station in view, and at that point it happened to be us,” said Glen Nagle of the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex.

When Spirit’s twin, Opportunity, landed on Mars on Jan. 24, the first communications it sent to this planet were also made through the biggest ears in the Southern Hemisphere, the 230-foot-wide (70-meter) antenna known as Deep Space Station 43, or DSS 43.

“It was in our field of view, so we just brought it through,” Nagle said. “It’s all worked beautifully. To have two spacecraft on Mars is fantastic.”

Worrying about Spirit
There were tense moments for everyone when Spirit slipped into silence, and blame first shifted to the storm clouds grumbling over Tidbinbilla.

But the clouds were soon discounted and attention switched to the activity — or lack of it — on Mars itself.

After sending only beeps for more than a week, Spirit underwent software repairs and has resumed gathering data in Gusev Crater, a 95-mile-wide (150-kilometer-wide) depression that once may have contained a lake. Opportunity landed 6,600 miles (10,560 kilometers) away, on a broad plain called Meridiani Planum. It too ended up in a crater, this one just 20 yards (meters) across.

Large ears, tiny signals
The NASA complex in Canberra’s hills opens its transmission link to the rovers through the Mars Odyssey orbiter when Mars comes into view around 4:40 p.m. each day (12:40 a.m. ET).

“It’s like large ears listening for tiny signals,” Nagle said. “It comes across in radio form, we receive it here, we clean it up and relay to (NASA’s) Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.”

The wider the ears, the better it is to receive the radio signals from Mars, which are about as strong as a wristwatch battery and sound like a constant whistle, Nagle said.

So imagine cupping your hand over your ear to try to hear as much as you can. That’s what DSS 43 does.

“It just makes our ears a bit bigger and more able to capture as much sound as possible,” Nagle said.

40 years of operation
With its nine crystal-clear vision cameras, the six-wheeled Spirit rover has snapped at least 3,900 pictures and transmitted them to Earth via Tidbinbilla, a station west of Madrid in Spain and the U.S. Army’s Fort Irwin Military Reservation in California.

The three stations are spaced about 120 degrees of longitude apart to maintain continuous 24-hour contact.

The Australian arm of this intergovernmental space program is entering its 40th year of operation.

It has watched astronauts and satellites rocket into deep space and monitored missions including the 1976 Viking and 1977 Voyager missions, and the Apollo space shot that landed the first man on the moon.

“That antenna right there brought back the images of Neil Armstrong walking on the moon,” complex director Peter Churchill said, pointing to the 85-foot (26-meter) DSS 46 dish.

Crowds of people crammed into the complex’s viewing area to watch Spirit’s Jan. 24 landing, made even more immediate for everyone there because the antenna receiving the signal was standing right outside.

“We were able to show it live ... the cheers that went up, people were absolutely proud,” Nagle said.

“There’s a lot of pride that our little country here on the other side of the planet is helping to make all of this possible.”

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