ESA’s Aussie space tracking station undergoes major maintenance

Max Blenkin

With the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landings this year, the role of the NASA tracking stations in Australia is now better known to many Australians.

ESA’s Aussie space tracking station undergoes major maintenance
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The Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex at Tidbinbilla, outside Canberra, now performs the tracking of distant NASA and other space missions.

Far less known is the New Norcia tracking station in Western Australia, which performs the same job for European Space Agency (ESA) missions.

New Norcia, about 135 kilometres north of Perth, began operations in 2003 has been run by the by the CSIRO since June this year. CSIRO also runs the complex at Tidbinbilla.

New Norcia, and ESA’s other two stations in Spain and Argentina, are operated from the ESA control centre in Germany. As well as ESA missions, it provides tracking services for Ariane, Soyuz and Vega launchers lifting off from the European Spaceport at Kourou, French Guiana.

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New Norcia recently underwent major maintenance.

ESA said large antennas were our only current way of communicating through space across vast distances and every now and then they needed attention.

Early this November, the ESA Deep Space Antenna at New Norcia was subject to major maintenance, with a wide range of updates implemented to keep it in pristine order.

To communicate with ESA's fleet of spacecraft, the position of the antenna needs to be controlled with high accuracy.

The huge 35-metre diameter dish relies on gearboxes to alter its position and these needed to be replaced.

Australia's national science agency, CSIRO, has been responsible for day-to-day operational support and maintenance at the New Norcia station since June 2019.

"It was wonderful watching the elevation and azimuth gearboxes being swapped out, in a perfectly choreographed operation using heavy duty chain hoists and a large crane," explained ESA's Andreas Scior, responsible for the upgrade activities.

"This was the first time such an operation was conducted on an ESA deep space antenna and despite its complexity, all involved teams managed to conduct the activity smoothly returning the antenna to service within just a week."

Scheduled maintenance of high-tech equipment also took place while the antenna power was off, as well as a series of frequency and timing enhancements, an upgrade of data routers and the installation of a new safety rail.

During the maintenance, WA state governor Kim Beazley, former deputy prime minister and opposition leader, dropped in for a visit.

CSIRO and ESA staff gave Beazley a full tour of the facilities, showcasing the cooperation at New Norcia between the Australian Space Agency and ESA.

New Norcia currently supports several space missions such as BepiColombo, Cluster, Gaia, Mars Express and XMM. It will also support many of ESA's future missions including JUICE, Solar Orbiter and Euclid.

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