Ground station to help launch missions to Mars

Publication date
Wednesday, 6 Dec 2023

A new optical ground station launched by The Australian National University (ANU) will help NASA and other major space agencies safely reach Mars.

The ANU Quantum Optical Ground Station, based at the University’s Mt Stromlo Observatory, is a telescope that will support high-speed advanced communications with satellites from low-Earth orbit to the Moon and other deep space laser communication. 

Astrophysicist at work
Associate Professor Francis Bennet. Photo: ANU

It will also drive future research on advanced communications technologies, providing satellite networks with quantum security and global connectivity.

With support from the Australian Space Agency’s Moon to Mars initiative, the station is being upgraded with the latest optical technology that will enable communication between the station and future NASA-crewed missions beyond low-Earth orbit.

Associate Professor Francis Bennet from ANU said the ground station was the “preeminent technology of its kind in Australia”.

“Using lasers, the ground station will allow us to communicate with satellites and crews hurtling through space, supporting major crewed space missions and future space exploration,” Associate Professor Bennet said.

“We have built systems that are cutting edge in their capability, and upgrading them to be compatible with NASA missions that will help permanent operations on the Moon, and improve astronauts’ ability to connect back with Earth and allow high-definition video from the Moon and Mars.

“This includes compatibility with NASA’s crewed lunar mission Artemis II.” 

The station received major funding from the ACT Government’s Priority Investment Program.

ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr said the ground station located in Canberra is a key national asset that positions Australia and the Indo-Pacific region to collaborate and compete on the global stage.

“Canberra has the capabilities to support space industry success and to take advantage of the enormous investment being made globally in space, through our growing knowledge economy,” said the Chief Minister.

“The ANU Quantum Optical Ground Station is another of the ACT’s strategic space sector co-investments that will enable competitive advantage for Australia’s space industry, attract talent from researchers, academics and industry to the ACT not only to help our economy continue to diversify but to equip industry with vital infrastructure to innovate and grow.

“The ACT Government is proud to have supported this ambitious project through our Priority Investment Program.” 

Director of the ANU Institute for Space, Professor Anna Moore, said the optical ground station was a “stellar” example of how ANU and Australian research was making major contributions to the future of space technology and exploration.

“It’s really exciting to see this new technology that will play a pivotal role in major future space missions come online,” Professor Moore said.

“With this technology, we will also be able to better access unused data and information about the Universe.

“We are thrilled that this station is now built and excited about the pivotal role it will play in our exploration and understanding of space. We look forward to working with our project partners on this nation-leading technology for many years to come.”  

The ANU Quantum Optical Ground Station is supported by funding from the ACT Government, with additional support from the Australian Space Agency, CSIRO and TESAT.

This article was first published by ANU Reporter.