Space and Science and Stormtroopers – Oh My!

By Glen Nagle

21 August 2013

The public were invited to take their own walking tour, up close and personal with Deep Space Station 43 - the largest steerable antenna dish in the Southern Hemisphere: Photo: Jessica Smith @crystalsinger

The public were invited to take their own walking tour, up close and personal with Deep Space Station 43 – the largest steerable antenna dish in the Southern Hemisphere: Photo: Jessica Smith @crystalsinger

2013 Space Open Day – Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex
Sunday, 18th August 2013

On a brilliant, sunny, albeit chilly Sunday, approximately 3,000 rolled out of bed and headed out to the CSIRO-managed, NASA deep space tracking station outside of Canberra for the 2013 Space Open Day.

The Space Open Day at the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex (CDSCC) is held every two years. It’s an opportunity for the public to take a closer look at the role played by Australia in space exploration through the NASA-funded facility. By taking people behind-the-scenes, the open day helps de-mystify the Complex by being transparent about what it is and what it does, demonstrating its peaceful, scientific space exploration activities.

The event invites the public to join both bus and walking tours of the Complex and opens areas available for self-walking tours closer to the big dish (DSS43). Special talks are presented in the visitor centre as well as other activities, exhibits and displays. This year, talks featured missions such as NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover and Canberra’s connection to the Apollo lunar landings. New exhibits included a full-size replica Apollo spacesuit.

A Stormtrooper from the 501st Legion of NSW/ACT protects the big dish from those pesky little Ewoks. Photo: Jessica Smith @crystalsinger

A Stormtrooper from the 501st Legion of NSW/ACT protects the big dish from those pesky little Ewoks. Photo: Jessica Smith @crystalsinger

Apart from the science, science fiction was also a big hit with the attendees. Popular sci-fi shows like Star Wars and Star Trek are often cited by scientists and engineers as being the thing that drew them towards an interest in real science and to pursue future careers in this area. It’s also just pure escapist fun!

CDSCC invited members of the 501st Legion (NSW/ACT) to attend the event. Jedi’s young and old enjoyed the opportunity to have their photos taken alongside Stormtroopers, Clone troopers, Imperial guards and Dark Sith Lords. Even the occasional Ewok was spotted!!

Space showbags were another favourite of families. Filled with photos, postcards, stickers and more, kids were excited to add to their space collections and include lots of free giveaways available, with posters, space fact sheets, Scientriffic and Double Helix magazines on offer.

Showbags filled with space paraphernalia were popular with families.

Showbags filled with space paraphernalia were popular with families.

The most popular activity of the day of course were the guided bus tours around the deep space complex. Going to areas normally not accessible to the public, buses departed every 20 minutes and stopped at several locations for a closer look at the antennas and the beautiful Tidbinbilla valley farmland where the facility is located.

Stop 1 was next to the 34-metre antenna Deep Space Station 34. During the Space Open Day, this beam waveguide style dish was busy at work on a radio astronomy project in cooperation with the European Space Agency to record radio source emissions from hundreds of stars across the galaxy. Moving to new point sources every two minutes, the public was able to watch as the antenna move with hairwidth precision, tracking a distant stellar object before moving silently on to the next.

Bus tours took people out to areas of the Complex normally not accessible to the public. Stops at existing antennas and drive-bys of the new dishes udner construction.

Bus tours took people out to areas of the Complex normally not accessible to the public. Stops at existing antennas and drive-bys of the new dishes under construction.

Driving out onto the construction site for the next generation of Deep Space Network antennas, visitors were able to see Deep Space Station 35 (DSS35) which is nearing completion of the main dish structure. They could also view the preparations for the next dish to be built, DSS36, currently a massive excavation hole being readied for construction of the antenna’s base pedestal structure.

Stop 2 on the tour was a closer look at Deep Space Station 46, the historic dish from the Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station which received and relayed to the whole world, the TV pictures of Neil Armstrong’s first step onto the surface of the Moon in July 1969. Moved to the Tidbinbilla station in 1981, it continued to support robotic deep space missions until its retirement in late 2009. This was a particular favourite of many visitors, especially those who still remember where they were and what they were doing on that incredible day 44 years ago.

Guided bus and walking tours were a big hit with the thousands of people who attended the Space Open Day. Photo: Jessica Smith @crystalsinger

Guided bus and walking tours were a big hit with the thousands of people who attended the Space Open Day. Photo: Jessica Smith @crystalsinger

The early expectation was that around 2,000 people would come along to the Space Open Day based on previous years’ experience, but the perfect weather, the timing of the event being held in National Science Week and The Force being with us via stormtroopers meant that 3,000 people came along to share in a love for space and science.

To accommodate the crowds, staff put on more bus tours, walking tours and talks. People were happy to wait for their chance to see the dishes and talk with expert guides about Australia’s proud role in space exploration and astronomy. Not even the icy, late winter breeze could dampen their enthusiasm.

It was an amazing (if not a bit hectic) day for the tracking station team of staff and volunteers, who were all exhausted by the close. Despite the aches and pains, there was a real sense of pride in the success of the event, and even while sore feet were being rubbed, many were saying, “Hey, I can’t wait to do this again in 2015”.