Mars photo first transmission to new European deep-space antenna

First Posted: Dec 28, 2012 11:17 AM EST

A picture from half-lit Mars, shot by the European Space Agency's Mars Express probe which is orbiting the red planet since 2003, was the first transmission to the new deep-space satellite tracking station in Malargüe, Argentina, which completes a network of ESA tracking stations around the globe.

The massive 35-meter radio reflector dish of ESA's new station, with a weight of 610 tonnes, is the most visible part of the high-tech station that will allow tracking missions hundreds of millions of kilometres deep in our Solar System, including ongoing ESA projects at Venus and Mars. "With the Malargüe station, ESA becomes only the second space agency in the world to provide all-sky coverage for deep-space missions," ESA's Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain said in a statement.

In addition to tracking missions at Mars and Venus, it can also conduct radio science experiments, allowing scientists in Europe and Argentina to study the matter through which the spacecraft-ground communication signals travel.

In exchange for hosting it for a planned 50 years, the station's capacity will be shared with Argentina, whose CONAE national space office was an instrumental partner.

"Malargüe station receives X- and Ka-band radio signals, significantly boosting its ability to receive large amounts of data from very far away," says ESA's Roberto Maddè, station project manager.

A 20 kW amplifier enables transmission of telecommands hundreds of millions of kilometres into space, while low-noise amplifiers cooled to -258ºC enable receipt of ultra-weak signals from beyond Jupiter. Put to practice, the antenna received the Mars Express' photos sent from 327 million kilometres away, after the signals travelled for 18 minutes at the speed of light.

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