Interview with Anthony Carro, NASA representative in Spain.
“Scientific research, both in the Solar System and in intergalactic space, is making unstoppable progress.”
What is the MDSCC and what role does it play in space exploration?
The MDSCC (Madrid Deep Space Communications Complex), located in Robledo de Chavela, is part of the Deep Space Network (DSN). This network, made up of three stations spaced equally around the globe, in Madrid, Goldstone (California) and Canberra (Australia), makes it possible to maintain permanent contact with space probes.
NASA has three major communications networks: one for near-Earth orbital flights, another for intermediate distances (transmitting signals through a set of satellites in geostationary orbit) and a third for remote missions, including missions such as Voyager (1 and 2) that go beyond the Solar System.
The DSN provides coverage for many missions undertaken by different space agencies. After receiving data from the probes, its three stations transmit these data to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). The data are then distributed to the different centres in charge and, in general, to anyone interested in space science.
What are its functions from a technical point of view?
The three DSN stations have similar facilities and equipment. The MDSCC has six high-capacity and highly sensitive antennas (one 70-metre, four 34-metre, and one 26 metre antenna), and another two 34-metre antennas are currently being built. To get an idea of the sheer scale of these antennas, keep in mind that the 70-metre antenna is larger than the Las Ventas bullring. The 26-metre antenna is truly historic: it was moved to the Robledo de Chavela station from the Fresnedillas de la Oliva station, where it transmitted the very first communications sent from the Moon during the Apollo 11 flight.
Why is this centre located in Robledo de Chavela, in the middle of Spain?
Due to the Earth’s daily rotation, the three stations have to be separated by about 120 degrees of longitude in order to maintain constant communication with the probes. After choosing the Goldstone and Canberra stations, the third station had to be somewhere in the vicinity of Spain. In addition, a location close to a metropolis with good air connections to the U.S. was desirable, as much of the equipment came from there. It was decided that three stations would be needed in Spain, separated into three nearby valleys to avoid possible electromagnetic interference. After a meticulous search, it was determined that the three stations in Spain would be located in Robledo de Chavela, Fresnedillas de la Oliva and Cebreros.
This month marks the fiftieth anniversary of the first Moon landing. What was the role played by NASA’s facilities in Spain?
The collaboration with Spain, through the National Institute of Aerospace Technology (INTA, for its initials in Spanish), was crucial for the Apollo programme. That cooperation continues fruitfully to this day, with the research that is being carried out on Mars being particularly noteworthy. The Astrobiology Centre is developing instruments for the Mars 2020 mission.
There were four stations in Spain: Maspalomas, Robledo, Fresnedillas and Cebreros. The Maspalomas station was the first, and played a key role in the first manned flights of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programmes. The Fresnedillas station, which focused on the Apollo programme, with support from the Robledo station, received Apollo 11’s first signal from the Moon, via the historic 26-metre antenna mentioned above. In commemoration of Spain’s crucial role in the Apollo programme, a moon rock brought back by Apollo 15 can be seen displayed at the MDSCC Visitor and Training Centre.
Of the missions you are currently carrying out at this centre, which would you like to highlight and why?
The MDSCC has participated in almost all of NASA’s missions to distant space and, due to its great capabilities, in many of these kinds of missions that have been undertaken by other agencies too. All the planets of the Solar System and many asteroids and comets have been visited.
It is impossible to highlight some missions over others, because they are all important for the advancement of our scientific knowledge about the Solar System and research into fundamental questions such as the existence of life in the Universe. One example is the Kepler mission, which was designed to search for planets in other galaxies and, in particular, planets located in habitable zones, with conditions similar to ours. However, we should also mention other missions that have become well known due to recent news, such as the missions to Mars, in particular the Mars rovers; the Cassini-Huygens mission that studied the planet Saturn and its satellites; New Horizons, which studied Pluto, and is currently studying the Kuiper Belt; Voyager 1 and 2 that continue to send back data from outside the Solar System after more than 40 years of flight; the Parker Solar Probe, which is studying the Sun; Osiris-Rex, which will bring samples of the asteroid Bennu back to Earth; etc.
What do you think the next great space adventure will be? Will it be going back to the Moon, or getting to Mars?
Scientific research, both in the Solar System and in intergalactic space, is making unstoppable progress. In terms of manned flights, research continues on the International Space Station. The Artemis programme has recently been announced, with the goal of landing a man and a woman on the Moon in 2024, and eventually setting up a permanent station on our satellite in 2028. The Artemis programme will test new technologies, capabilities and business approaches on the Moon with the ultimate goal of carrying out a manned mission to the planet Mars. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Curiosity and Insight missions continue to investigate the red planet, paving the way for manned Artemis flights to Mars.
Space exploration is much more open to new stakeholders now than it was 50 years ago, especially private initiatives. Do you see this as a positive change?
Space exploration has always been open to all kinds of collaborations, from government agencies, researchers and industry. These links are getting stronger every day. NASA will increasingly partner with industry and its international partners in these fascinating scientific research and manned exploration missions to the Moon and Mars, and Spain will undoubtedly continue to be an integral part of all these developments advancing research on other planets.