It takes more than 9½ years for a spacecraft to travel the 5.7 billion kilometres to Pluto. But when the New Horizons mission finally passes the dwarf planet in 2015, Australia will play a pivotal role. An official from the US space agency NASA has confirmed plans to build two new dish antennae at Tidbinbilla, just outside Canberra, as part of the support network that tracks all of NASA's deep space missions.

When man landed on the moon 41 years ago, it was Australian antennae that broadcast the astronaut's first few steps to the world. And while no men will walk on Pluto just yet, Australian dishes will be the first to capture the most detailed images of the icy blue mass so far.

Badri Younes, the head of Space Communications and Navigation, said NASA hoped the two new antennas, both 34 metres in diameter, would be operational in time for the Pluto flyby in 2015. Mr Younes said there was also a plan to build an extra two antennas of the same size by 2025. ''From down under you can have a better view of the world above,'' he said. ''Australia has been our eyes and ears into our universe.''

The Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science & Research, Senator Kim Carr, said NASA's commitment to expanding its presence at Tidbinbilla was an endorsement of Australia's capabilities. ''Our long-standing science and technology relationship with the United States is of enormous value to Australia,'' he said.

Australia already has four antennas at the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex at Tidbinbilla. The new, more efficient dishes will replace two of the old ones. The dishes are part of NASA's deep space network, the only site in the southern hemisphere. Two other sites are in Madrid, Spain and Goldstone in the US. Each site is 120 degrees of longitude apart from the others, providing continuous coverage of NASA's activities in space.

A group of NASA officials arrived in Australia this week for the announcement of the new antennas, which will cost the space agency an estimated $US45 million ($50 million) each to build. The Herald understands a ground-breaking ceremony for the first new antenna will be held at Tidbinbilla on Thursday.  The NASA party, which includes William Gerstenmaier, the head of space operations at NASA and Charles Elachi, the head of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is in Australia to also celebrate the 50th anniversary of Australian and US space relations.

Earlier this month it was announced that the agreement between the two nations over the use of Australian space monitoring sites at Tidbinbilla, Alice Springs and Dongara in Western Australia, would be extended for another two years. Mr Younes said the relationship between the two countries was very reliable. It was something to preserve and grow. ''We could have ground sites elsewhere, but what's so special about the Canberra site is the relationship we have with the government of Australia,'' he said.