January 22, 2003
Australian antennas of NASA's Deep Space Network used for communicating with spacecraft are back in normal operation after a close call with wildfires that destroyed hundreds of homes and took four lives in the Canberra area.
Brush fires surrounded the network's Canberra complex on Saturday. Workers used hoses to dowse spot fires on the site Saturday and were still extinguishing flare-ups Monday.
"A group of staff performed magnificently, successfully ensuring that no fires took hold at the site," said Peter Churchill, director of the Canberra antenna complex. "They also assisted the local fire service in their efforts to protect homes and farm infrastructure in the Tidbinbilla Valley."
The Canberra dish antennas were inactive for about three and one-half hours Saturday so workers could concentrate on the fire. During that period, the complex had been scheduled to be in communication with five spacecraft on interplanetary missions or in Earth orbit, but none of the missed transmissions was critical or irreplaceable, said Joseph Wackley, Deep Space Network operations manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
The network has antenna clusters in California, Spain and Australia so that the large radio dishes can be pointed toward spacecraft in any part of the solar system as the world turns. The antennas communicate with spacecraft as distant as Voyager 1, more than twice as far away as Pluto.
Strong winds spread the fires across expanses of drought-parched vegetation. One entrance to the Canberra complex has been closed because of a burned-out bridge, Churchill said. An outlying support structure -- a tower, used in calibrations of the antennas -- was damaged by the fires. The site's visitor center is temporarily closed. The fire destroyed another important astronomical resource in the area, the Mount Stromlo observatory of Australian National University.
The antenna site has its own backup electrical generators and water supply. The facility is sharing hot meals and water with area residents who have temporarily lost power and water to their homes.
"We are expecting further adverse weather conditions during the week and continue to prepare ourselves for fire duties as required," Churchill said.
JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Deep Space Network for NASA. The network's Canberra site is operated by British Aerospace, under contract to Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation.
JPL/Guy Webster (818) 354-6278