Cassini Phone Home

Goldstone Deep Space Communication Complex

by Lara Hartley
All images copyright Lara Hartley

Apollo Valley, originally used in the Apollo missions to the Moon, is now home to the largest cluster of antennas at Goldstone. A 26-meterdiameter (85 feet) and three 34-meter (111 feet) antennas are in roundthe-clock communication with spacecraft throughout the solar system, as well as ones relatively close to home as they orbit Earth.

Apollo Valley, originally used in the Apollo missions to the Moon, is now home to the largest cluster of antennas at Goldstone. A 26-meter diameter (85 feet) and three 34-meter (111 feet) antennas are in round-the-clock communication with spacecraft throughout the solar system, as well as ones relatively close to home as they orbit Earth.

It is a “Mission Possible” – to infuse children and adults with the wonderment and awe of outer space by exposing them to the giant antennas at Goldstone Deep Space Communication Complex. How do you define “wonderment?” Dictionaries are very simple - “Something that produces wonder; a marvel.”

“A cause or occasion of wonder.”

“The joy of discovery.”

The last sentence. That’s it. That is what I felt when I saw the giant communication antennas up close and personal on my tour of the Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex.

The two gleaming dishes of the Gemini station are the first antennas on the road into GDSCC. They are so alien-looking in the Mojave Desert landscape - so very white in a sea of browns and dull-gold. But it is their size that can overwhelm the senses - and the knowledge of what they do. I parked the car for a moment and just stared at them.

I felt as if I had discovered a whole new world. A world of infinite possibilities; of extraterrestrial life, of exploration beyond planetary bounds. Not science fiction but science fact.

Students can control the huge Echo radio telescope to collect data from
objects in the universe at which the antenna is pointed.

It is one thing to see objects of space exploration on television or in films. But when the intricacies of spacecraft and their communication devices are within arms' reach, then fantasy can become reality.

The Goldstone Deep Space Communication Complex is north of Barstow, California on Fort Irwin National Training Center. It is one of three complexes, which comprise NASA’s Deep Space Network. The DSN provides radio communications for all of NASA’s interplanetary spacecraft and is also utilized for radio astronomy and radar observations of the solar system and the universe.

The facility provides the means for Earth-based teams to send commands to spacecraft and bring back images and information collected about planets, the solar system and the universe beyond.

It can also track asteroids that are potentially hazardous to Earth. For example, asteroid 2007 DT103 was discovered by the Mt. Lemmon Survey (University of Arizona) on Feb. 26, 2007. Goldstone ran a series of tests and observations through early August of that year, on this traveling rock.

The different antenna stations at Goldstone are usually busy tracking and communicating with a variety of spacecraft. “These are some of the spacecraft we are tracking right now: The two Mars’ rovers - Spirit and Opportunity; the two Voyagers and the largest craft out there, Cassini, currently in orbit around Saturn,” said Karla Warner, outreach coordinator for the communication complex. (NASA's website states, "Cassini completed its initial four-year mission to explore the Saturn System in June 2008 and an extended Cassini Equinox Mission through 2010. Now the healthy spacecraft is working even more overtime on the Cassini Solstice Mission, seeking answers to new questions raised in Cassini’s first years at Saturn.")

“When the Cassini mission launched back in 1997, we knew of only 18 moons orbiting Saturn,” said Carl Murray, a Cassini imaging team scientist from Queen Mary, University of London. “Now, between Earth-based telescopes and Cassini we have more than tripled that number – and each and every new discovery adds another piece to the puzzle and becomes another new world to explore.”

Lead Space Operations Controller Dennis Russell watches the big monitor in Goldstone’s signal processing center. Equipment and personnel are located in this one facility in order to centralize all antenna operations.

The 60th addition to the Saturnian system was discovered by Murray on May 30, 2007 and was affectionately, if temporarily, named “Frank, ” before earning its official name, "Anthe". (The count of Saturn's moons is now up to 63.)

Scientists believe the more we know about space and its bodies, the more we can learn about our own planet Earth.


An operating model of a 64-meter antenna is one of the many hands-on displays at the museum at Goldstone.

Visitors from Los Angeles to Fresno and Las Vegas to Victorville come to Goldstone for the amazing tours and museum. There are experiments, model spacecraft, hands-on displays and a drive around the desert to see the various antenna stations and a full-size replica of a Mars rover.

Groups can be from one to 50, with the majority being from schools, families, clubs and senior citizens' groups.

An experiment with soundwaves involving a tunnel is pretty popular. “Most kids who have been here before ask if they are going in the tunnel,” Warner said. She tells them, “Yes, if you want to,” with excited enthusiasm for what she does. “I love these kids,” she said.

Reservations are required for tours of the Goldstone Complex. To book a tour, call (760) 255-8688 or email Tours are geared to the audience whether they be astrophysicists or toddlers. Warner said, “The public needs to be aware of the great stuff we have in space.”


Other Photo-Stories by Lara Hartley
Birthday Road Trip: Route 66
Ludlow for Lunch
Intimate Landscapes


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