We are often asked some very similar questions on our role in space exploration and a few 'old chestnut' questions that are raised by urban myth and pop culture.
We thought we'd answer a few of our favourites here...
Q: Do you play cricket on the dish?
No. This is a great scene in the movie 'The Dish' but it just doesn't happen in real life. The dish surfaces have to be a very accurate parabolic shape and any dents from cricket balls or walking on it would reduce the quality of signals we receive from spacecraft.
When the antennas are at stow (pointing straight up), the antennas are either offline for maintenance, when staff are busy doing preventative checks or upgrades or the antenna has finished communicating with one spacecraft and is getting ready to communicate with another. This is the only time when people can be on the dish surface and they have to stick to certain paths to avoid causing surface damage.
An interesting side note is that in the early days of the tracking station, the current site of of the big dish was the location of the staff's original cricket pitch at Tidbinbilla, an alternative site has since been found.
Q: Why are you in a valley and not on a hill?
We are located in a valley to avoid the interference of "human made noise" that can affect the data we received back spacecraft, as the data has travelled a long way.
Q: Is the Parkes dish bigger?
No, the dish at Parkes is 64-metres in diameter, while our DSS43 antenna is 70-metres in diameter. DSS43 was originally built as a 64-metre antenna, but was upgraded in the late 1980s as a 70-metre for Voyager 2's encounters with Uranus (1986) and Neptune (1989).
Q: Which dish got the first pictures from the Moon?
Deep Space Station 46 (DSS46), the antenna located closest to the public carpark at the front of the Complex, brought back the first images of Neil Armstrong stepping onto the Moon on 21 July 1969. When the antenna received these images, it was located at the Honeysuckle Tracking Station, in the south of Canberra. That Tracking Station was closed in 1981 and its dish relocated to the Tidbinbilla station to support deep space missions. DSS46 was retired from service and the end of 2009. It remains here as a permanent monument to those missions of the past and to the hundreds of men and women who worked on them.
Q: How many people work here?
About 90 staff are employed at the Complex. About 25 are shift teams who staff the Complex 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The rest work across the Complex and include work fields such as technicians, engineers, electricians, administration, facilities maintenance, logisticians, ground maintenance, cooks, cleaners and public affairs.
Q: Who pays for it all?
The Complex is a funded entirely from NASA's space exploration budget.
Q: What do the dishes do?
The antennas or 'dishes' provide two-way radio contact with dozens of robotic spacecraft exploring the Solar System and beyond. When not sending commands to these probes or receiving the data and images they collect, our antennas are busy either being checked, having maintenance performed on them and testing new tracking techniques.
In our spare time, as part of the international agreement between Australia and the United States, we get to use the antenna for radio astronomy science and will often link our big dish to other dishes across Australia, notably Parkes and Narrabri, to create one giant antenna that can provide incredible detail of distant stars, galaxies and black holes.
Q: How many dishes are there?
There are four operational antennas on site - Deep Space Station 43 (70-metres in diameter), Deep Space Station 34, 35 and 37 (each 34m in diameter). The other dishes are inactive and have been decommissioned.
Q: What roles does CSIRO play?
CSIRO is responsible for the management and operations of the Complex on behalf of NASA.
Q: Do you have a military role?
No. Our role is only to communicate with unmanned, robotic interplanetary missions in deep space that have a scientific job to do.
Q: Do you communicate with Space Shuttle or Space Station?
No, Space Shuttle (now retired) and the International Space Station have their own communication systems relaying through orbiting satellites directly to mission control.