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Goonhilly’s deep space antenna tracks global push to Mars in UK first

Having been at the forefront of satellite communications for over fifty years, Goonhilly Earth Station will now play an instrumental role in the next generation of space exploration using its new GHY-6 antenna to enable deep space communications on pioneering missions to the Moon and Mars.

Goonhilly has been working with the ESA over the past few weeks, using Mars Express - a spacecraft on an active Mars mission - as the test vehicle to validate their GHY-6 antenna. They are currently shadow tracking Mars Express as it orbits the red planet. Whilst shadow tracking Mars Express in this pre-operational phase, Goonhilly has also received signals from another global mission - the UAE Space Agency Hope Mission.

Picking up signals on February 9th, Goonhilly was able to report that the UAE Space Agency Hope Mission successfully entered Mars’ orbit. In a significant month for Mars missions Hope was followed by CNSA Mars Mission Tianwen-1 on February 10th. There are hopes that Tianwen-1, a rover-holding satellite, will touchdown on Mars in May.

Only a week after these two missions entered Mars’ orbit, on February the 18th, NASA’s JPL Perseverance rover is due to land on Mars’s surface, and the GHY-6 antenna will be pointed at Mars during the landing attempt. Though not an official downlink, Goonhilly will be able to receive and potentially decode the signals from the rover should NASA need support before and during the landing. This will be the first time communications direct from the surface of Mars will be received in the UK. The data will travel roughly 200 million km in an incredible ten minutes.

Having already proved its capabilities in these transmissions, providing final testing is successful, GHY-6 will become the world’s first commercially operational deep space antenna. In the next few weeks it will be ESA qualified, able to support any normal operations, including; monitoring telemetry, sending telecommands and downlinking science data. Crucially the antenna will enable NASA and ESA to ensure continued support for ongoing missions with a long-lasting legacy.

The 32m satellite dish has been upgraded through a 2-year programme funded by the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership, UK Space Agency and ESA. The upgrade has been completed in time for the expected increased activity around the Moon. Several missions are expected this year and with the UK Space Agency signed up to the Artemis Accords, GHY-6 will likely play a part in some of these missions. Hopefully, the antenna will be relaying the steps of a first woman on the Moon.

Amanda Solloway, Science Minister, commented: "It is brilliant to see Goonhilly join a host of exceptional UK companies, researchers and scientists all playing their part in humankind's quest to explore Mars.

"Our space sector is growing exponentially, and over the next ten years we expect to see 30,000 new space jobs created. The government is committed to supporting businesses and communities right across the country, from Helston in Cornwall up to Shetland in Scotland, as we work together to maximise the economic and scientific potential of space.”

Ian Jones, CEO, Goonhilly Earth Station: “The conversion of this antenna to become part of the trusted ESA and NASA deep space networks has been part of our business plan right from the beginning. Achieving that goal has been extraordinarily difficult. In a sense, the technology upgrade was the easy part – although that in itself was a two-year intensive programme, replacing almost every system on the entire antenna – including 10,000 nuts and bolts. Our team has worked along-side colleagues at ESA implementing the sophisticated planning and operational tools required for deep space mission support. Now, we are fully equipped for supporting space agency and private missions to the Moon, Mars and other solar system locations, and we can extend that capability as we build out our international network.”

Dr Kat Hickey, Senior Business Development Manager, Goonhilly Earth Station Ltd: “This is an incredible step forward in the next evolution of space exploration. With so many advanced missions taking place and planned for the next few years, we hope the GHY-6 will be able to support in a scientific and commercial capacity, aiding global access to space.”