Wildfire in Australia: Is NASA pushing its luck?

By Dan Drollette Jr | January 31, 2020

smoke and satellite dishSmoke rises behind one of the giant satellite dishes of the Deep Space Communications Complex in Canberra in late January, 2020. Image courtesy DSCC via Twitter

One of the nicknames that Australians have for their homeland is “the lucky country.” The phrase appears in books, magazines, scholarly journals, and everyday conversation. But should a major research organization rely on luck when it comes to climate change, wildfire, and its science facilities?

Because in case you missed it, the BBC said on Friday, January 31, that ­Australia’s wildfires are now flaring up on the outskirts of Canberra, the nation’s capital—my old stomping grounds as a foreign correspondent down-under. With the entire capital region currently in the middle of a 106-degree heatwave, authorities there have declared a state of emergency. This weekend is considered to be something of a make-or-break point, say meteorologists; with temperatures expected to cool on Monday, February 3, there may even be the potential for showers in the neighboring state of New South Wales—and, hopefully, the region immediately around Canberra.

But what happens in the next 48 hours could be crucial.

And may affect Mars.

Or to be more precise, NASA’s spacecraft orbiting Mars.

For as the BBC’s map shows, the Australian wildfires are in easy striking range of an area on the southwest outskirts of town called “Tidbinbilla,” which is where NASA’s Deep Space Communications Complex is located. This set of massive radio dishes and communications equipment is one of only three such facilities in the entire world, each of which is strategically located in such a way that NASA’s Deep Space Network can keep in constant radio contact with its spacecraft, satellites, probes, and everything else located in the far reaches of space, and guide them while our planet turns on its axis. Tidbinbilla contains an array of several radio satellite dishes, each of which is huge—as much as 70-meters across—and this NASA facility was the one used to help guide the missions to Mars.

Deep Space Network radio dishes graphic
At the DSN Now website, you can see in real time which of NASA’s Deep Space Network radio dishes are doing what, in each part of the world—transmitting or receiving, along with data on signal strength and transmission power. As of the writing of this article, Dish #43 in Tidbinbilla was communicating with the Mars Odyssey spacecraft, 292 million kilometers away.

I well remember the day in July 1997 when the first images came down from Mars: Due to the orientation of the planets, Tidbinbilla was the first place on Earth to receive data transmissions from the first Mars Rover. The incoming ones and zeroes of this stream of raw data were roughly assembled by computer into images, before being forwarded to headquarters at the Jet Propulsion Lab in California. People in town learned of this news and flocked to Tidbinbilla to see what was going on; the line of cars on the road stretched for roughly about four or five miles, reported the Canberra Times. Some people gave up on the huge traffic jam and walked the rest of the way in, sort of like Woodstock.

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To satisfy the huge public demand, staff at the Tidbinbilla visitor center finally took to projecting the newly assembled images from Mars on one of the exterior walls of a two-story building—something like an old-fashioned drive-in movie theater. But because the Red Planet was so far away and the capacity of the modem-like devices (for lack of a better term) receiving the data was so limited, only a relatively small number of pixels went up on the wall at a time. Consequently, people saw a live picture direct from the plains of Mars slowly being filled in, a few pixels at a time, from hundreds of millions of miles away. If anything, this drawn-out process added to the sense of being on the cutting edge of something historic—as did the sight of the giant radio dishes moving in unison to re-focus on one particular spot in the sky. Even now, I get chills.

(Years earlier, one of these same dishes—since relocated—brought back the first images of Neil Armstrong stepping onto the moon in July, 1969.)

Surprisingly, NASA has no duplicate below the equator for the Deep Space Communications Complex at Tidbinbilla. The things are just too darn expensive, and NASA is perennially cash-short. So if this complex in the Southern Hemisphere were to go up in flames, NASA’s deep space program would be more-or-less blind whenever the bottom half of the Earth rotates towards Mars, for example, unable to have two-way radio contact with its robotic spacecraft orbiting there until the Northern Hemisphere comes back into alignment.

The idea of such a disaster may sound far-fetched—but this is the second time in a little over 16 years that massive wildfires have menaced the outskirts of Canberra. Big telescopes down-under in general seem to be on a bad run lately; the Australian National University’s research telescopes at a place called Siding Springs, about 300 miles to the north of Canberra, were hit by a major wildfire in 2013. And in the epic 2003 Canberra wildfires, buildings at the Australian National University’s telescope facility at Mount Stromlo burned to the ground, and several of their telescopes—including the historic, 50-inch Great Melbourne Telescope—melted. Another ‘scope, known as the Oddie refractor telescope, was damaged beyond repair. (“The lens now looks like a deep-fried jellyfish,” a research officer at the observatory told ABC Science Online.) You can see a picture of the 2003 burning at Mount Stromlo below.

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burning observatory in Australiia
The 2003 wildfires in Canberra devastated its Mount Stromlo observatories. Image courtesy of Australian Capital Territory Electricity and Water

(Fun fact: This telescope complex at Mt. Stromlo was where Bulletin Board member Brian Schmidt conducted the work that earned him the Nobel Prize in physics. It was here that his team discovered that the universe is still expanding, at an ever-increasing rate.) Mount Stromlo is located on Canberra’s western outskirts about 27 miles from Tidbinbilla—which may seem far away, but was still a bit of a close call by the standards of distance in the Australian bush. Tidbinbilla itself, located to Canberra’s southwest, escaped that particular time.

But this time around, the NASA website for the Tidbinbilla Deep Space Communications Complex posted a big warning, and the administration closed the visitor center.

No one wants to overstate the case, and authorities say that this facility is absolutely not in imminent danger at the moment, according to their Twitter feed @CanberraDSN. But this is the second time in a little over 16 years that the Deep Space Communications Complex at Tidbinbilla has been at risk; in their Twitter photo (see topmost photo), smoke can be seen from the wildfires in the distance.

And here it should be noted that it does seem a bit short-sighted for NASA’s Deep Space Network to have just one site in the entire Southern Hemisphere for handling its deep-space tracking; the organization appears to be putting all its eggs in one basket. With a hotter, drier, and more drought-stricken Australia, we’ll probably be seeing more wildfires—and consequently more instances where the Deep Space Communications Complex at Tidbinbilla is threatened by climate change and wildfire.

The last time the fires came this close, in 2003, they eventually veered away.

But NASA may not always be so lucky.

Even in the lucky country.

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Glen Nagle
Glen Nagle
4 years ago

The tracking station at Tidbinbilla has an significant fire break around it by design. Its overall emergency management plan ensured its safety during the 2003 fire which were much more significant in their local impact than the present fire situation. The buildings and antennas are well protected with fire suppression systems and the safety of personnel the site’s highest commitment. Yes, we should all be worried about the effects ongoing from climate change and a drier environment, but good planning, mitigation and adaption to these changes would ensure that a NASA facility such as this continues operations unimpeded into the… Read more »

Øyvind Guldbrandsen
Øyvind Guldbrandsen
4 years ago
Reply to  Glen Nagle

Øyvind G
ESA’s Deep Space Antenna in Australia (New Norcia) consists of a single 35-meter antenna, compared to one 70-meter and three 34-meter antennas at NASA’s Canberra station. So ESA’s antenna would only be able to fulfill a fraction of DSN’s tasks. If the unthinkable were to happen, of course.

NASA should consider upgrading the Parkes 64-meter radio telescope to full DSN standard, as a Canberra backup.

4 years ago

Maybe CSIRO would not want that…