You may have gathered I like things astronomical and sciencey. On Monday afternoon I took the kids out to the Tidbinbilla tracking station outside Canberra. The station is also known as the Canberra Deep Space Communications Complex (CDSCC) and forms an integral parts of NASA's space communications network alongside similar stations in Madrid and California. The Tidbinbilla station was the one that was going to be facing Mars when Curiosity landed after its nine month journey between the planets. I wanted to be there at 1530 when the signal was received (or not received!).
We arrived out there at about half-two and parked by the side of the road some 500m from the front entrance. We joined a long line of cars and more were arriving behind us. By the time we got into the visitors centre the place was packed and standing room only (and rather stuffy) with a large screen piping in the feed from JPL. It was fantastic to see so many people – and all sorts too – out there to witness something the internet would have shown them better. Mobile devices had to be switched off so they didn't interfere with the radio gear on-site. We left the main building and went outside to the playground and some fresh air(!). I caught up with a photog mate who was out there doing some time-lapse work.
I loved explaining to the kids that at that moment, at 1500 the dish was sending a signal across 220 million kilometers, to another planet, to the Curiosity to 'Go!' to begin it's descent… and that after 30 minutes we'd know whether it had worked or not. That dish there … that one right there … will pick up the signal. I was excited 😉
At about 1525 we sneaked in around the side into the visitors centre to listen to the JPL stream. We could hear them calling the descent rate of 0.75 meters per second when they announced 'Touchdown! Curiosity has landed'. The place erupted in near-teary and relieved applause … the atmosphere was terrific … we all clapped and cheered. We applauded not only the engineering feat (the calculations!) or that it all worked (I want a sky crane!) but through relief that hopes and dreams had not been dashed. That this will be the last rover for some time and had it failed there would unlikely be another for many, many years. What a cool thing … they took a moving science lab the size and weight of a car and flung it through space and landed it on another planet to within 7km of its landing spot … who on Earth works that kind of stuff out?
The photo is one I took on another visit (we're somewhat regulars) during winter last year. It was an icy windy day beneath low clouds when the sunset broke through and bathed the dish in beautiful golden light.