Sunday, July 26, 2009

Deep space

My sister and eight-year-old niece are in town for a visit, selflessly trading in three weeks of Boston summer for an equivalent amount of Canberra winter just so they can hang out with us. We stuck around Canberra for the first several days of their visit so they could recover from jet lag, so took the opportunity to play tourist where we live, which usually leads to an interesting discovery or two.

On Sunday we took them to the Canberra Space Centre in the hills near Tidbinbilla, about 40 minutes outside Canberra. It’s a little surreal: some buildings and a cluster of giant satellite dishes sitting in the middle of open country, with sheep and kangaroos grazing nearby.

Without having planned it, we happened to be visiting in the run-up to events commemorating the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing. I found out quite a bit of stuff I didn’t know, mostly about how involved Australia in general, and this centre in particular, has been with NASA space exploration. Anyone who has seen the movie The Dish will know about the Australians’ role in transmitting the signal from the first moon landing, but the movie fictionalized a few things, including the location of the eponymous satellite dish. It wasn’t in Parkes, NSW; it was near here and now resides at the Canberra Space Centre. (They also didn’t play cricket on it, which bummed me out a little bit to discover.) And today, this centre is one of only three stations in the world which make up the Deep Space Network; the other two are in California and Spain, strategically spaced so that, as the earth rotates, someone is always pointing in the right direction for observation of and communication with spacecraft.

The little museum was crammed with lots of other interesting facts and artifacts, from details about why it took so long for an American woman to go into space (surprise! Sexism), to a scale-model replica of the solar system hanging from the ceiling that shows just how much bigger Jupiter is than all the other planets (and which Miss B found totally entrancing).

So if you happen to be in the neighborhood (or about 35 km from the neighborhood, which is more likely), and you’re at all interested in space exploration, drop by. It turns out to be a pretty cool thing to have out in the backyard, regionally speaking.


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