Goonhilly to rejoin deep space communications programme

Goonhilly satellite station in Cornwall is to become the UK’s biggest centre for communicating with deep space missions, under plans revealed yesterday.

A new consortium, Goonhilly Earth Station Limited (GES), intends to upgrade the former BT Satellite Earth Station with antennas that could transmit signals to spacecraft visiting Mars and asteroids within the Solar System.

The planned facility will also act as a radio telescope and could vastly improve the resolution of the UK’s e-Merlin radio astronomy network, an array of seven radio telescopes across the UK, connected to a central correlator at Jodrell Bank Observatory in Cheshire.

‘The biggest antenna here is 32m and with appropriate low-noise, front-end receivers it will be the equivalent of the current state-of-the-art Deep Space Network antennas,’ GES chief executive Ian Jones told The Engineer.

‘The NASA Deep Space Network bases are in Arizona, Spain and Australia, but there’s a world shortage of download capabilities for manned space travel support.’

Matthew Goodman, spokesman for the UK Space agency, said: ‘Goonhilly has the biggest dishes in the UK. There are other bases doing a similar job of communicating with satellites, such as the 12m dish at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, but they won’t have the same range.’

Goonhilly was once the largest satellite earth station in the world and received the first live transatlantic television broadcasts from the US but its current owner, BT, ceased satellite operations in 2008.

‘The antennas have been sitting here lifeless for the last two or three years so the first plan is to immediately get them moving again and do some proving and technical work,’ said Jones.

‘Simultaneously we need to upgrade the antenna control systems. Satellite communications antenna tends to use a system where it locks onto a beacon from the satellite.

‘When you’re doing space communications you don’t have that luxury – it has to be dead reckoning – so we’ll be upgrading to a programme track system.’

GES will also be upgrading Goonhilly’s biggest – and oldest – antenna with new receivers to turn it into a radio telescope for e-Merlin and installing a dedicated fibre-optic line to Jodrell Bank.

This will double the network’s longest baseline (the distance between two individual bases) to around 400km, effectively increasing the diameter of the telescope.

‘It will have about 40 per cent more collecting area and that means it will be more sensitive, but it also means it will also have much greater resolution,’ said Jones.

The Goonhilly telescopes could also be connected to global radio astronomy networks that will eventually include the Square Kilometre Array, a collaboration between 20 countries to create the largest and most sensitive radio telescope ever built at a cost of approximately €1.5bn (£1bn).

A special carousel carrying the different receivers will be installed to allow the operators to easily switch between the antenna’s functions.

The upgrades are expected to take around 12 months to complete but GES is still looking to secure the millions of pounds of funding it needs for the project, from both private and public sources.

GES will take a three-year lease on most of the Goonhilly’s antennas and has an exclusive option to purchase the whole site for an undisclosed sum.

It is collaborating with Oxford and a consortium of other universities that will manage the astronomy services that Goonhilly will provide. Defence firm Qinetiq will assist with the upgrades and provide the communications operations.

The company also plans to reopen and redevelop the site’s visitor centre as a space-themed science outreach centre.

BT will continue to use parts of the site and retain some antennas for research, testing and other operations.