Tag Archives: space
The role Australia played in relaying the first television images of astronaut Neil Armstrong’s historic walk on the Moon 50 years ago this July features in the popular movie The Dish.
But that only tells part of the story (with some fictionalisation as well).
What really happened is just as dramatic as the movie, and needed two Australian dishes. Australia actually played host to more NASA tracking stations than any other country outside the United States.
How big is the Moon? Let me compare …
Right place, right time
Our geographical location was ideal as US spacecraft would pass over Australia during their first orbit, soon after launch. Tracking facilities in Australia could confirm and refine their orbits at the earliest possible opportunity for the mission teams.
To maintain continuous coverage of spacecraft in space as the Earth turned, NASA required a network of at least three tracking stations, spaced 120 degrees apart in longitude. Since the first was established in the US at Goldstone, California, Australia was in exactly the right longitude for another tracking station. The third station was near Madrid in Spain.
Australia’s world-leading place in radio astronomy was another factor, having played a key role in founding the science after the second world war. Consequently, Australian engineers and scientists developed great expertise in designing and building sensitive radio receivers and antennas.
While these were great at discovering pulsars and other stars, they also excelled at tracking spacecraft. When the CSIRO Parkes radio telescope opened in 1961 it was the most advanced and sensitive dish in the world. It became the model for NASA’s large tracking antennas.
The Commonwealth Rocket Range at Woomera, South Australia, also allowed Australians to gain experience in tracking missiles and other advanced systems.
The dish you need is at Honeysuckle Creek
NASA invested a considerable amount in its Australian tracking facilities, all staffed and operated by Australians under a nation-to-nation treaty signed in February 1960.
For human spaceflight, the main tracking station was at Honeysuckle Creek, near Canberra. Its 26-metre dish was designed as NASA’s prime antenna in Australia for supporting astronauts on the Moon.
NASA’s nearby Deep Space Network station at Tidbinbilla also had a 26-metre antenna but with a more sensitive radio receiver. It was called on to act as a wing station to Honeysuckle Creek, enhancing its capabilities, and ultimately tracked the orbiting command module during Apollo 11.
Over in Western Australia, Carnarvon’s smaller 9-metre antenna was used to track the Apollo spacecraft when initially in Earth orbit, as well as to receive signals from the lunar surface experiments.
To augment the receiving capabilities of these stations, the 64-metre Parkes radio telescope was asked to support Apollo 11 while astronauts were on the lunar surface. The observatory’s director, John Bolton, was prepared to accept a one-line contract:
The Radiophysics Division would agree to support the Apollo 11 mission.
The original plan
The decision to broadcast the first moonwalk was almost an afterthought.
Originally, the tracking stations were to receive only voice communications and spacecraft and biomedical telemetry. What mattered most to mission control was the vital telemetry on the status of the astronauts and the lunar module systems.
Since Parkes was an astronomical telescope, it could only receive the signals, not transmit. It was regarded as a support station to Honeysuckle Creek, which was also tasked with receiving the signals from the lunar module, Eagle.
When the decision was made to broadcast the moonwalk, Parkes came into its own. The large collecting area of its dish provided extra gain in signal strength, making it ideal for receiving a weak TV signal transmitted 384,000km from the Moon, using the same power output as two LED lights today.
One giant leap
On Monday, July 21 1969, at 6.17am (AEST), astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed the Eagle lunar module on the Sea of Tranquillity.
It occurred during the coverage period of the Goldstone station, while the Moon was still almost seven hours from rising in Australia.
The flight plan had the astronauts sleeping for six hours before preparing to exit the lunar module. Parkes was all set to become the prime receiving station for the TV broadcast.
This changed when Armstrong exercised his option for an immediate walk – five hours before the Moon was to rise at Parkes. With this change of plan, it seemed the moonwalk would be over before the Moon even rose in Australia.
But as the hours passed, it became evident that the process of donning the spacesuits took much more time than anticipated. The astronauts were being deliberately careful in their preparations. They also had some difficulty in depressurising the cabin of the lunar module.
Meanwhile, moonrise was creeping closer in Australia. Staff at Honeysuckle Creek and Parkes began to hope they might get to track the moonwalk after all – at least as a backup to Goldstone in the US.
Bad weather hits
The weather at Parkes on the day of the landing was miserable. It was a typical July winter’s day – grey overcast skies with rain and high winds. During the flight to the Moon and the days in lunar orbit, the weather at Parkes had been perfect, but this day, of all days, a violent squall hit the telescope.
Still, the giant dish of the Parkes radio telescope was fully tipped down to its 30-degree elevation limit (the telescope’s horizon is 30 degrees above the true horizon), waiting for the Moon to rise in the north-east.
As the Moon slowly crept up to the telescope’s horizon, dust was seen racing across the country from the south. The dish, being fully tipped over, was at its most vulnerable, acting like a huge sail.
The winds picked up and two sharp gusts exceeding 110km/h struck the large surface, slamming it back against the zenith angle drive pinions that controlled the telescope’s up and down motion. The control tower shuddered and swayed from this battering, creating concern in all present.
The atmosphere in the control room was tense, with the wind alarm ringing and the 1,000-ton telescope ominously rumbling overhead.
Parkes had two radio receivers installed in the focus cabin of the telescope. The main receiver was on the focus position and a second, less sensitive receiver was offset a very short distance away, which gave it a view just below the main receiver.
Fortunately, as the winds abated, the Moon rose into the field-of-view of the telescope’s offset receiver, just as Aldrin activated the TV at 12.54pm (AEST). It was a remarkable piece of timing.
The 64m antenna at Goldstone, the 26m antenna at Honeysuckle Creek and the 64m dish at Parkes all received the signal simultaneously.
At first, NASA switched between the signals from Goldstone and Honeysuckle Creek, searching for the best-quality TV picture.
After finding Goldstone’s image initially upside down and then of poor quality, Houston selected Honeysuckle’s incoming signal as the one used to broadcast Armstrong’s “one giant leap” to the world.
Eight minutes into the broadcast, at 1.02pm (AEST), the Moon finally rose high enough to be received by Parkes’ main, on-focus receiver. The TV quality improved, so Houston switched to Parkes and stayed with it for the remainder of the two-and-a-half hours of the moonwalk, never switching away.
Honeysuckle continued to concentrate on their main task of communications with the astronauts and receiving that vital telemetry data.
Throughout the moonwalk, the weather remained bad at Parkes. The telescope operated well outside safety limits for the entire duration. It even hailed toward the end, but there was no degradation in the TV signal.
The moonwalk lasted a total of 2 hours, 31 minutes and 40 seconds, from the time the Eagle’s hatch opened to the time the hatch closed.
Australians saw it first
In Australia, the Apollo 11 feed was split. One feed was sent to NASA mission control for broadcast around the world. The other went directly to the ABC’s Gore Hill studios, in Sydney, for distribution to Australian TV networks.
As a result Australians watched the moonwalk, and Armstrong’s first step through Honeysuckle, just 300 milliseconds before the rest of the world.
An estimated 600 million people, one-sixth of the world’s population at the time, watched the historic Apollo 11 moonwalk live on TV. At the time it was the greatest television audience in history. As a proportion of the world’s population, it has not been exceeded since.
The success of the Apollo 11 mission was due to the combined effort, dedication and professionalism of hundreds of thousands of people in the United States and around the planet.
Australians from Canberra to Parkes, remote Western Australia to central Sydney played a critical role in helping broadcast that historic moment to an awestruck world.
You can hear more about the Moon landing in our special podcast series, To the Moon and beyond.
It’s 50 years since the two Apollo 11 astronauts – Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin – spent 22 hours collecting samples, deploying experiments and sometimes just playing in the Sea of Tranquillity on the Moon.
In doing so, they created an archaeological site unique in human history.
Now, with what’s been called the New Space Race and plans to return to the Moon, the Apollo 11 and other lunar sites are under threat. We need to protect this heritage for future generations.
How big is the Moon? Let me compare …
Apollo 11’s archaeological site
The archaeological site of Tranquillity Base consists of the hardware left behind, as well as the marks made in the lunar surface by the astronauts and instruments.
The hardware component includes the landing module, the famous flag (no longer standing), experiment packages, cameras, antennas, commemorative objects, space boots and many other discarded objects – more than 106 in total.
Around these objects are the first human footprints on the Moon as well as the tracks the astronauts made walking around, and the places where they dug out samples of rock and dust to take back to Earth for scientific analysis.
The artefacts, traces and the landscape constitute an archaeological site. The relationships between them can be used by archaeologists to study human behaviour in this environment so different to Earth, with one-sixth terrestrial gravity and no atmosphere.
Assessing the heritage value
Not only this, but the site has heritage value for people on Earth. To assess this, we can look at a number of categories of cultural significance. Those in the Burra Charter are widely used across the world for heritage assessment.
Historic: There is no doubt that, as the first place where humans set foot on another celestial body, this is a very important place in global history. It also represents the ideologies of the Cold War (1947-1992) between the US and the USSR.
Scientific: What can we learn from the site? More particularly, what questions would we no longer be able to answer if Tranquillity Base was damaged or destroyed?
This is not just about archaeological research into human behaviour on the Moon. Apollo 11 has been exposed to the harsh lunar environment for 50 years. The surfaces of the hardware are accidental experiments in themseves: they carry the record of 50 years of micrometeorite and cosmic ray bombardment. Finding out how well the materials have survived can also provide information about how to design future missions.
Aesthetic: This type of cultural significance is about how we experience a place. While we can’t assess it in person, there are films and photographs that give us a feeling for the place. This includes the light, shadows and colours of the lunar surface from the perspective of the human senses. The aesthetic qualities have inspired many artists and musicians, including astronaut Alan Bean who devoted his post-Apollo 12 life to painting the Moon.
Social: This is about the value that contemporary communities place on the site. For the 600 million-plus people who watched the television broadcast of the landing, it was a life-changing moment representing the ingenuity of human technology and visions of a space-age future.
But the mission did not mean the same for everyone. Some African-Americans protested against Apollo 11, seeing it as a waste of resources when there was such great economic and social disparity between white and black communities in the US. For them, it was a sign of human failure rather than a triumph.
The larger the community that has an interest in a heritage place, the higher its level of social significance. It could be argued that Apollo 11 has outstanding universal significance, like places on the World Heritage List (unfortunately the World Heritage Convention cannot be applied to space).
What are the threats?
In the past few years we have seen an increase in proposed missions to return to the Moon. Some have stated their intention to revisit the Apollo sites, by human crew or robot – and this could lead to the removal of material, for souvenirs or science.
But the sites are both fragile and unprotected. The two primary risks to their survival are uncontrolled looting, and damage from abrasive and sticky lunar dust.
Removing material from the sites damages the integrity of the artefacts and the relationships between them. A casual visit could erase the original footprints and astronaut traverses. The corrosive dust disturbed by surface activities could wear away the materials.
Dust was a problem for all the crewed lunar missions. Apollo 16 commander John Young said: “Dust is the number one concern in returning to the Moon.”
The dust can be stirred up by plumes from landing or ascending vehicles, driving vehicles, walking on the surface, or, in the next phase of lunar settlement, by construction and industrial activities, such as mining.
Attempts at protection
The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 forbids making territorial claims in space. Applying any national heritage legislation to a place on the Moon could be interpreted as a territorial claim.
The US states of California and New Mexico have placed the Apollo 11 artefacts left on the Moon on a heritage list. They can do this because, under the treaty, the US legally owns the artefacts. But this does not protect the site itself.
NASA has established a set of heritage guidelines for its sites on the Moon. The guidelines propose buffer zones around these areas, inside which no-one should enter. They make recommendations for approaching the sites to minimise dust disturbance.
In May 2019, a bill called the One Small Step to Protect Human Heritage in Space Act was introduced to the US Congress. Its purpose is:
To require any Federal agency that issues licences to conduct activities in outer space to include in the requirements for such licences an agreement relating to the preservation and protection of the Apollo 11 landing site, and for other purposes.
But the bill applies only to Apollo 11 and does not have similar requirements for the five other Apollo landing sites. It also applies only to US missions. It’s a step in the right direction, but there is still much more to be done.
Only in the last decade has the idea of space archaeology gained legitimacy. Until recently, there was no urgency to establish an international framework to manage the cultural values of lunar heritage.
Why the Moon is such a cratered place
Now we’re in a new situation. On Earth, it’s common for industrial or urban activities that disturb the environment to be subject to an environmental impact assessment, which includes heritage.
Even when there are no laws to force companies to pay attention to heritage, many consider it important to seek a Social Licence to Operate – support from stakeholder communities to continue their activities.
Everyone on Earth is a stakeholder in the heritage of the Moon. Fifty years from now, what will remain of the Apollo 11 and other sites? What new meanings will people draw from it?
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that this story may contain images and voices of people who have died.
The five planets we can see by naked eye were known to the ancient Greeks as “asteres planetai”, meaning “wandering stars”, due to their wandering journey across the sky relative to the fixed stars. This is where we get the word “planet”.
But knowledge of the planets and their movements goes back much further, being prominent in the traditions of the oldest continuing cultures in the world.
Recent research reveals a wealth of information about the planets and their complex motions in the Knowledge Systems of Indigenous Australians.
The wandering stars
These systems show that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people carefully observe the complex motions of the planets.
In Wardaman traditions, the planets are ancestor spirits who walk across a celestial road. Wardaman Elder Bill Yidumduma Harney calls it the Dreaming Track in the Sky.
Astronomers call this celestial road the zodiac – the region of sky nine degrees on either side of the ecliptic (the path of the Sun). As the planets orbit the Sun in roughly the same plane, they all are visible along this band of the sky.
Uncle Yidumduma describes the planet-ancestors moving across the sky much like we walk down a busy footpath. We sometimes hurriedly pass each other, or slow down for a chat. Occasionally, we even stop and turn backwards to chat with someone before moving forward again.
Astronomers call this phenomenon retrograde motion. It is an optical effect that occurs as the planets orbit the Sun at different distances and velocities. It means the planets can appear to slow down and move backwards for a time before returning to their normal motion.
There are five planets visible to the naked eye and right now, and you can see at least four – Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn – in the sky at sunset from most locations across Australia. All of these planets are currently in retrograde motion.
The (non) twinkling stars
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people recognise that these wandering stars generally do not twinkle – a phenomenon the Meriam people of the eastern Torres Strait call epreki and observe to predict weather and seasonal change.
But sometimes they do twinkle, particularly if they are very low on the horizon. Kamilaroi people of northern New South Wales say Venus occasionally twinkles when it’s low in the sky. They say it’s an old man who told a rude joke and has been laughing ever since.
In the traditions of the Euahlayi people – neighbours of the Kamilaroi – Venus and Mars relate to songlines and trade with Arrernte people of the Central Desert.
During special ceremonies, the Arrernte travel from the MacDonnell Ranges to Quilpie in southwest Queensland, bringing with them a red stone that signifies Mars. The Euahlayi people bring a green and blue stone to the ceremony, representing Venus. They are seen as the different-coloured eyes of the creator spirit Baayami.
Venus – the Morning and Evening Star
Venus is commonly known in many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures as both the Morning and Evening Star.
In the Dreaming stories of the Western Arrernte, a celestial baby fell from the Milky Way, striking the ground and creating the giant meteorite crater called Tnorala (Gosses Bluff). The child’s parents – the Morning and Evening Stars – take turns searching for their lost child to this day.
Arrernte mothers warn their children not to look at the Morning or Evening Star, as the celestial parents might mistake them for their lost child and carry them away to the sky.
In Yolngu traditions of Arnhem Land, a special ceremony is held to signify the rising of the Creation ancestor, Banumbirr (Venus), between the mainland and a Burralku – the sacred island of the dead.
The ceremony starts at dusk and continues through the night, reaching a climax when Banumbirr rises a few hours before dawn as Venus transitions from the Evening Star to the Morning Star. Banumbirr communicates with the people through a faint rope that holds her close to the Sun.
Astronomers call this zodiacal light – the glow of dust in the plane of the Solar System.
The first rising of Venus as the Morning Star, after it transitions from the Evening Star, occurs every 584 days. Astronomers refer to this as Venus’ synodic period.
When astronomer Ray Norris asked a Yolngu elder how the people know when to hold the Banumbirr ceremony, the elder responded: “We count the days!”
That’s an achievement not often recognised, and just another example of the detailed understanding of these “wandering stars” in the Knowledge Systems of Indigenous Australians.
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Most of us will never have the opportunity to travel into space. But we can feel connected to it in other ways.
Above us right now, and every day, are extraordinary old satellites from the 1950s and 1960s, orbiting at speeds of 7-8 kilometres per second.
They’re part of our space heritage.
Deciding which parts of this heritage should stay, and which should be on a “hit list” for removal, is the tricky bit.
Cultural heritage is defined as “things from the past and present, worth preserving for present and future generations”.
In recent decades there has been a movement to recognise the heritage of the modern world, including the…
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