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Goonhilly Earth Station hoping for new lease of life

Kate Arkless Gray, News Reporter
Jul 16, 2015, 13:00 UTC

Sen—In July 1962, the first live transatlantic television signals were beamed down from the Telstar 1 satellite and received at Goonhilly in Cornwall, UK. Fifty-three years on, the Goonhilly Earth Station is hoping for a new lease of life, supporting the future of space exploration.

The European Space Agency (ESA) has commissioned a study to see whether the largest antenna at Goonhilly Earth Station—Goonhilly 6—could be used to provide communications support for the Orion Exploration Mission 1 in 2018.

Announcing the news at the UK Space Conference in Liverpool, Ian Jones, CEO of Goonhilly Earth Station Ltd expressed his delight at the decision, saying: “We are excited at the prospect of Goonhilly playing a significant role for the UK in future space missions to the Moon and beyond”.

Exploration Mission 1 will be an uncrewed flight of the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle that hopes to build upon the success of Orion’s maiden test flight in 2014. It is scheduled to launch from the Kennedy Space Center in 2018 on the Space Launch System (SLS), which is currently in development.

The feasibility study, to be conducted by Goonhilly Earth Station Ltd, QinetiQ and BAE systems, will take nine months to assess what is required to enable the 32 meter antenna to support Orion’s flight around the Moon. The antenna is already used for commercial satellite communications, but would require an upgrade to form part of the Deep Space Network (DSN)—NASA’s international array of radio antennas that support interplanetary missions.

This international array of highly sensitive antennas enables us to receive data and images from missions around the Solar System—like the images of Pluto from the New Horizons flyby this week. It is also used to command and control spacecraft, satellites and Mars rovers, and with three strategically placed sites around the globe (U.S., Australia and Spain) it gives continuous coverage.

Playing a role in supporting deep space missions is an exciting prospect for Goonhilly Earth Station, which had faced the prospect of being demolished in recent years.

Built in 1962 by the General Post Office (GPO), Goonhilly helped develop modern satellite communications and played a key role in broadcasting events such as the Apollo 11 Moon landing and the original Live Aid concert. One of the antennas, nicknamed “Arthur”, received the first live TV pictures from America and has grade II (special interest) listed status.

The previous owners, BT, moved their operations away from Goonhilly, eventually closing the site in 2008. Goonhilly Earth Station Ltd bought it in 2011 and is already operating commercial services, with plans to re-open the visitor centre and provide training for space mission operators.