CSIRO selected to manage European spacecraft tracking station

Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO, has been selected to provide maintenance and operational support for the European Space Agency’s deep space tracking station at New Norcia, 130 kilometres north-east of Perth in Western Australia.

This is the first time that an Australian organisation has been selected to manage day-to-day operations at the ground station. The European Space Agency (ESA) control centre in Darmstadt, Germany will continue to remotely control its spacecraft and satellites via the station.

The contract is due to start on 1 June 2019. A three-month handover from the current contractor will start on 1 March 2019.

“The facility at New Norcia has been in operation since 2003 and now, for the first time, an Australian organisation will provide critical maintenance and operational support at the station,” federal industry, science and technology minister Karen Andrews said.

“Through its management of NASA’s Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex, as well as Australia’s leading radio astronomy facilities, CSIRO has rich experience operating large, complex infrastructure for spacecraft tracking and astronomy research.”

A 35-metre antenna at the tracking station, DSA-1, provides support to ESA’s missions exploring the solar system, tracking their locations, sending commands to control spacecraft, and receiving data collected hundreds of millions of kilometres from Earth.

These missions include BepiColombo, which was launched in October 2018 and will explore Mercury – the closest planet to our Sun – where it will endure temperatures in excess of 350°C; and Mars Express, which is currently orbiting the Red Planet collecting information about its geology, atmosphere, surface environment, history of water and potential for life.

The station provides tracking support to scientific and interplanetary missions operated by other international space agencies like NASA and Japan’s JAXA under resource-sharing agreements. The New Norcia station also provides critical tracking services for Ariane, Soyuz and Vega launchers lifting off from Europe’s Spaceport at Kourou, French Guiana.

CSIRO Chief Executive Dr Larry Marshall said the new relationship with ESA would support the continued exploration of the solar system and help to build up more data and knowledge to inform our understanding of the Universe.

“It builds on our 75 year history of space science and demonstrates our ongoing commitment to growing Australia’s space industry, inspiring the next generation of scientists and driving innovation through global partnerships,” Marshall said.

“Understanding the Universe and using what we learn to inform our science, create new technologies and fuel jobs and industries of the future is critical for Australia and the world.”