Monday, April 6, 2009

Desert Destination: Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex

Every Monday we visit a desert destination.
A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit a desert location that makes one realize how small our planet Earth is. That place was the Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex, which has an array of antennas that communicate with spacecraft that might be billions of miles away. 

Yikes. I can't even fathom that distance. And to imagine we have communications that far away? Why, we don't even have cell phone coverage where I live, how can we possibly communicate with tiny little spacecraft we can't even see anymore?

Goldstone is located on the Fort Irwin Military Base about 35 miles north of Barstow, California.
When driving towards Fort Irwin, I noticed some signs that I don't usually see. 

The tank next to the Welcome sign provides an interesting message, especially with the gun pointed right at the cars driving on the highway!

After going through the security booth (which took awhile--I felt like I must be a decent human when they finally finished checking my documents and didn't find me appearing as wanted on any of the government databases), I headed down the road marked as Ammo Route. I'm not quite sure what that was about...and I wasn't sure I wanted to ask!

The desert skies darkened and opened, allowing a deluge of water to fall upon the desert. I managed to snap a photo of the entrance sign to Goldstone, but my windshield was splattered with rain drops. 

The road to the main Goldstone complex is fascinating. Tucked away in the creosote bushes are huge antennas, pointed in different directions up in the sky. They are placed in basins so that the surrounding mountains block stray signals from other sources.

The different arrays are given different names, some after planets, like the Venus station. 

At the main Goldstone complex, our group went into a classroom for an excellent presentation from the outreach coordinator, Karla Warner. Our group was the maximum size of 50, but groups as small as a single family can also go on the tour. Generally two tours a day, four days a week are given. Reservations are required by calling Karla at 760-225-8688 or emailing her at About 4,000-5,000 people a year tour the Goldstone complex.

After the presentation, we had time to peruse the exhibits that covered a range of space-related themes.

Then it was time to go 12 miles further into the complex to the Mars Station, home of the largest antenna, 70-meter Mars. You can see how big it is compared to the tiny cars in the bottom right of the photo. 

Side note: Do you see all the bright blue sky? The storm dumped for about 20 minutes and then was over.

The antenna is so large because the signals coming from space can be extremely weak--as weak as a billionth of a billionth of a watt--20 billion times less than the power required for a digital wristwatch.

The shape of the antenna is extremely important to hear the whisper of the signal coming from tiny spacecraft so far away. To help figure out what the signal is, the extremely sensitive receivers use amplifiers that are cooled to within a few degrees above absolute zero (-273 degrees C; -460 degrees F) to reduce the background noise generated by the electronic equipment.

The antennas also send signals to the spacecraft, telling them to turn on computers, take photos, activate instruments, and make course corrections. 

Here are just a couple rows of equipment that are used to record the data received. There are many more rows in this section of the building. And another part of the building is used to house the data to be sent. 

Goldstone is in California, a state known for its earthquakes. So above all this sensitive equipment are round beams that the equipment cases are connected to. A strong earthquake might make the floor rattle and roll, but the computers and recorders will be safe.

California is not always in the optimum position to talk or listen to spacecraft because of the earth's rotation, so there are two other deep space facilities: near Canberra, Australia and near Madrid, Spain.
Here's a glimpse into the control room at Goldstone. Different computers control different antennas. For routine communications, 34-meter beam-waveguide antennas are the most common. Other types of antennas include high efficiency, azimuth-elevation, and hour-angle declination. (I really don't know what those mean, but I'm trying to sound intelligent. I remembered to take a little brochure with me from the tour so I could get my facts straight, because there's no way I could have remembered all this.)

And if you'd like to make sure I haven't told any lies--or you just want to learn more, you can visit the Deep Space Network website.

On the drive back out of Goldstone and Fort Irwin, I passed several desert tortoise crossing signs, but unfortunately didn't see any desert tortoises.

However, I did see a sea monster making its way across the lake dry bed. I would have liked to have stayed longer to make its acquaintance, but I was a little afraid because I was on the Ammo Route, and I still didn't know what that was.

I saw a sign before a bridge that declared the weight limit was 64 tons. I didn't think that was for the sea monster.

Sure enough, there were more tank crossing signs. The brake marks on the pavement make me wonder if someone didn't take the sign seriously enough.

And finally we reach the end.


Anonymous said...



The Incredible Woody said...

You take us to the coolest places!!

Dessert Survivor said...

Great destination. I wish I could visit. The road signs were great, especially the last one.

jendoop said...

Just had to tell you that even my 14 year old was impressed!

Caroline said...

Love the sea monster!! OOwwww

Anonymous said...

I live on Ft. Irwin, and that was more information than I have been able to get from people that have been here for years!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for creating this! I shared this with my 11th US history classes in 2010 and 2011. We live in Bakersfield and I love sharing local history. My students thought it was beyond belief that we are located so closely to these important government areas! I incorporated your blog into my presenation, thanks for sharing.

Desert Survivor said...

Glad this post has been helpful! Rereading it and seeing the photos again makes me want to visit again.

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