ALICIA CHANG, AP Science Writer 12:02 p.m. CST, March 8, 2010
LOS ANGELES (AP) — The deep space antenna that relayed Neil Armstrong's famous "one giant leap for mankind" declaration from the moon to a rapt American audience will be offline for eight months for repair. Work begins this week to replace a steel donut-shaped bearing on the aging 230-foot-wide dish at the NASA Deep Space Network site at Goldstone Dry Lake in the Mojave Desert about 150 miles northeast of Los Angeles.
The labor-intensive process, which will involve jacking up 9 million pounds, will keep the antenna out of service until at least November. "It's not trivial," said Pete Hames of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who is in charge of maintaining the antennas at the Goldstone complex.
Besides California, tracking stations in Australia and Spain make up the Deep Space Network. Together, they point nonstop to the sky, sending commands to robotic spacecraft millions of miles away and listening for their often faint replies — communication streams filled with images, scientific findings and operational data.
During the repair, interplanetary communications will not be disrupted, said deputy project manager Wayne Sible. Missions that normally depend on Goldstone, such as the Spitzer Space Telescope, the Saturn explorer Cassini, various Mars spacecraft and even the Voyager 1 probe — which sailed to the edge of the solar system — will instead communicate through other giant, bowl-shaped antennas near Madrid, Spain, and Canberra, Australia.
Engineers chose to do the repair this year — at an estimated cost of $1.25 million — so that the Goldstone antenna would be ready next year to support the launchings of the Juno spacecraft to Jupiter and the long-delayed Mars Science Laboratory to the red planet. It's the first major work done on the antenna since the 1980s when it was enlarged to its current size. Engineers said the bearing, which helps it turn sideways, has worn out after more than four decades.
The Goldstone antenna is steeped in history. During the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969, it captured Armstrong's words and sent them on to American televisions while the image came through another antenna. Its other accomplishments include receiving the first close-up views of the outer planets and their moons.
NASA last month broke ground in Australia on a new generation of smaller but advanced antennas that would eventually replace the workhorse fleet of 230-foot-diameter dishes around the world.