Famous Parkes telescope to again track lunar landings

March 25, 2021
parkes telescope
The Dish. Photo: CSIRO

Australia’s Parkes radio telescope, the famous dish that played a critical role in receiving pictures from the Apollo 11 moon mission, is back in the lunar landing business.

Australian national science agency CSIRO has signed a new five-year deal with Houston-based aerospace company Intuitive Machines as a ground station supporting multiple lunar missions.

The 64m Parkes telescope, the subject of the popular feature film “The Dish”, will play a role in NASA’s Commercial Lunar Landing Payload Services (CLPS) initiative harnessing commercial companies to deliver science and technology to the moon.

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The telescope is primarily used for astronomical research but CSIRO says it is valuable for spacecraft tracking due to its large dish surface and advanced data acquisition systems.

It has been supporting space missions since 1962, when it tracked the Mariner 2 mission in its fly-past of Venus, and most recently received data from Voyager 2 as it entered interstellar space.

“Along with NASA’s Honeysuckle Creek station near Canberra, the Parkes radio telescope helped share the Apollo 11 Moon landing with more than 600 million people around the world,’’ said CSIRO acting chief scientist DR Sarah Pearce.

“ And now we are proud to support the first companies extending their reach to the Moon’s surface, advancing knowledge that can benefit life both on Earth and, one day, on the Moon,” Dr. Pearce said.

“Australia is growing a vibrant and respected space industry, underpinned by world-class national infrastructure and a long history in enabling space exploration. This is another example of Australian capability supporting the international space community.”

The dish will be the largest and most sensitive receiving ground station in Intuitive Machine’s lunar missions.

Intuitive machines will launch a moon lander, Nova C, on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket towards the end of 2021. It will carry commercial cargo and five NASA experiments to investigate local geography and test the technology required for future human exploration.

The company says NASA wanted CLPS providers to utilize ground stations outside the agency’s  Deep Space Network supporting interplanetary space missions.

Intuitive Machines vice president for control centers Dr. Troy LeBlanc said being the first commercial company to land on the Moon was a huge communications challenge.

“We require the technical support and expertise of the team at CSIRO’s Parkes radio telescope to provide mission tracking and data downlink services,” Dr LeBlanc said.

“CSIRO’s Parkes telescope adds significant data downlink capability to Intuitive Machines’ robust Lunar Telemetry, Tracking and Command Network.

“The successful use of the Network for these initial missions will underpin the return of humans to the Moon and ultimately sustainable presence under the Artemis program.”