Meet master controller Richard Stephenson, supporting the James Webb Space Telescope’s exploration of the Universe.
Richard Stephenson has worked at the Canberra Deep Space Communications Complex (CDSCC) for more than 30 years. Here, he helps keep the tracking station talking to spacecraft exploring the Solar System and beyond.
Maintaining contact with all of NASA’s space missions is critically important. This is why there are three complexes in the network equally spaced around the globe in Australia, Spain and the USA. Each complex includes a similar number and type of antennas. This means they can communicate with the large flotilla of spacecraft in deep space.
“Canberra operations supports the DSN tracking schedule and when there are issues on Earth or in space my role is to restore the communication links as fast as possible using whatever resources I have available,” Richard said.
“Our current schedule contains more than 30 active missions, including tracking the James Webb Space Telescope.”
On Christmas Day 2021 the world received a special present. The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) launched on the European Space Agency’s Ariane 5 rocket from French Guiana. During the Australian night, CDSCC tracked the JWST as it headed for Lagrange point 2.
“Our team started preparing for JWST months before its launch, testing on all DSN antenna to check compatibility and proficiency,” Richard said.
The DSN has supported JWST from the moment it separated with its launch vehicle. This support will continue until its end of mission, hopefully many years in the future.
“JWST is just one of more than dozens of spacecraft we support, but it has provided new challenges across the network.”
“Initially the JWST team needed full manual control with real-time configuration changes as they worked through deploying the telescope.”
“Under normal operations, tracking automation developed by CDSCC allows a controller to support up to three antennas at once. During the complex commissioning stage, the JWST team were making real-time changes and this automation could not be used. Controllers had to maintain focus at all times ready to react to the spacecraft configuration changes the JWST team were making.”
Dishes never sleep
As Earth rotates each complex controller team hands over to the next providing constant communication with the spacecraft. While the controller teams get to sleep through their night, the antennas at each complex continue to work. They are controlled remotely by one of the teams from the other complexes.
“We call this ‘follow the Sun operations’. Each controller team takes turns tracking spacecraft using the entire network. During daylight hours in Canberra, my team and I control the antennas at Madrid and Goldstone, as well as our own, to communicate with all the active spacecraft the network supports,” Richard said.
“The deployment of the JWST – launch, arrival at Lagrange point 2 and commissioning – has been nearly flawless. And the JWST is now a permanent fixture in our daily tracking schedule.”
Collecting the huge amount of data and images from JWST and downlinking at 28Mbit/sec (modest by terrestrial standards) means regular contact with the spacecraft for its entire mission.
“Being 1.5 million kilometres from Earth does have its disadvantages when it comes to returning data, since covering this distance takes time,” Richard said.
As for why he loves his job, Richard said “I’m also the DSN training coordinator so I get to impart my passion for all things space to our new controllers across the network.”
“The continuous evolution of the network and the amazing spacecraft it supports is the reason I’ve never considered doing anything else.”
JWST is an international collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Canadian Space Agency.