Pluto phones in: Canberra takes the call

By Madeleine van der Linden 15 July 2015
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Canberra’s Deep Space Communication Complex has a major role to play in collecting and relaying data from New Horizons.

SPACE ENTHUSIASTS AROUND the world held their breath as the New Horizons spacecraft completed the first flyby of Pluto on Tuesday evening (Australian time), and then beamed its data back billions of kilometres across the Solar System.

Though most of the work and excitement was centred on US-based facilities, such as the Applied Physics Laboratory of John Hopkins University in Baltimore, a team of Australian experts at Canberra’s Deep Space Communication Complex (CDSCC) also had an important role to play.

The CDSCC – an outpost of NASA, run by the CSIRO – is one of three stations around the world communicating with, and relaying information to and from New Horizons; and Australia’s location at that time in the Earth’s rotation made it the perfect place to receive the first high-resolution images after the ‘phone home’ signal at 11am AEST on Wednesday.

Pluto pictures: the best is yet to come

At 7pm the most detailed pictures captured of Pluto will be received in Canberra. The rest of the information will take between 12 and 18 months to reach Earth, as it is slowly downloaded and processed piece by piece.

Dr Ed Kruzins, director of the CDSCC, says the mission has been a big success so far.

“It all went well. In the lead up we were very nervous, because you never know what gremlins are going to pop out of the machinery, but it all went very smoothly so we’re pretty happy,” he told Australian Geographic

After initial elation as New Horizons began the five hour flyby at 9:50pm on Tuesday, the team in Canberra had to wait another nervous half day for the data to come through, and with it, confirmation that New Horizons had performed as expected.

“We had a 10-hour wait because [it] had to turn away from Earth as it went by Pluto. So, it was a nerve-racking pause and there was a big celebration here when it came through,” Ed says.

Pluto images and data still streaming in 

The party may have started, but the job’s not over yet. Ed was still at work today, along with the 92 other members at the CDSCC. The group is focused on collecting the data sent from New Horizons before passing it on to NASA in the US to be analysed.


New Horizons flew 12,500km above the surface of Pluto, taking photos and other data readings that will help scientists gain a better understanding of the little planet. The mission will likely continue to explore other icy dwarf planets beyond Pluto in the Kuiper Belt, as long as more funding is secured and its battery lasts (which could be until 2030).

Images already returned from New Horizons show a large heart-shaped white patch. Other findings include the Pluto has a polar ice cap and a nitrogen-based atmosphere, Much like Earth (though much colder, with a surface temperature previously estimated at -223°C).

Some astronomy enthusiasts think the heart-shaped feature looks more like a silhouette of Disney’s Pluto character. Have a look below and see what you think.