Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex

Goldstone is one of three Nasa/Jet Propulsion Labs installations for tracking and communicating with spacecraft. Although it can be used to help out with comm with the shuttle or other low earth orbit craft, the network's primary purpose is to keep tabs on deep space craft, like Pioneer, Voyager, and the like: most recently its famous clients include the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity. The network can also be used for limited radio astronomy.
There are three installations spaced roughly 120 degrees apart in longitude, so that at least one can see a given part of the sky (limited to some degree around the celestial equator) at any time. Two are in the northern hemisphere (Goldstone and Madrid, Spain) and one is south of the equator (Canberra, Australia). This gives limited coverage of the entire sky, to cover those craft that leave the ecliptic plane.
All of the sites have at least four antennas: a 34 meter (111 feet) high-efficiency dish, a 34 meter Beam Waveguide dish, a 26 meter (85 feet) general purpose dish, and the "coup de gras", a 70 meter (230 feet) monster dish. Goldstone also serves as the development center, if you will, so it is equipped with more: it has three of the 34 meter Beam Waveguide antennas, for example, one of which is pictured above.
In fact, there are dishes all over the place! In the shadow of the 34 meter dish above are a smaller (9 or 11 meters, I think) and what looks to be a TVRO dish.
A view of the back of the 34 meter dish. It was in use when we were there: there was a flashing red caution light indicating that a transmitter was active. These antennas are definitely not "receive only", they are also used to send commands to the spacecraft.
This is one of the waveguide antennas, so named because the transceiving antenna is not located at the focal point of the dish. Instead a tube (waveguide) is used to direct the received signals down to, and the transmitted signal up from the antennas located in an equipment room below the dish, and out of the weather. This also allows for transceiver maintenance without taking the dish out of service.
Another dish (I forget whether it was another 34 meter or a smaller one) and some light clouds.
Wish they did this when I was in school! This 34 meter dish was decommissioned some time ago, and was going to be dismantled when someone came up with a bright idea. So, it is now part of the Goldstone Apple Valley Radio Telescope, an educational joint venture of Nasa, JPL, and the Lewis Center for Educational Research. If you are a teacher and your school is not part of this, check it out at their web site! (They assured us the transmitters were disabled before they turned the installation over to the kids...)
This dish, located right at the visitor's center, is also interesting in the fact it has an equatorial type mount, as opposed to the alt-azimuth mount I expected all of the dishes to have. Originally known as DSS-12, the antenna was used to track robotic planetary missions. I suppose in the "good old days" an equatorial mount, which will normally only have to be moved on one axis to keep up with an object in the sky, was easier to control with less computer power.
Someone made the remark that the other two complexes at Canberra and Madrid were nice and compact. Goldstone is spread out all over the place, in part because it was the first, and they were not sure if the antennas would interfere with each other. Located on the grounds of Fort Irwin, near Barstow, CA, the complex is in a small valley, with hills to block potentially interfering signals. Above is shot from the car showing the desert, the sign proclaiming Mars Station, and our first glimpse of "the big one"! We were also told that there is one dish that is not on the tour: Fort Irwin is an active training center, and you have to traverse a live fire area to get to it. That's OK, there are plenty of others to see!
Another view as we get closer. These pictures just don't convey how big this thing is! The dish is in its "parked" position here, pointing straight up. In this position it offers the least wind resistance, and must be returned to this position whenever the winds are approaching 45 MPH. We were there on January 15, 2004, the day they rolled MER "Spirit" off of her lander, so this guy was going to get a workout that night after Mars rose.
At the base of the antenna, we had to resort to the 18mm lens to get the whole dish, so the extreme wide angle distorts the image somewhat, and you still don't get a good feel for how big this thing is! Note the door directly behind Pat to gauge how big the base is. The ring about about halfway up the base cylinder is how the antenna above, riding on a paper-thin sheet of oil, is turned in azimuth. If I understood correctly, the antenna can only be turned 45 degrees in one direction, before it must be "ratcheted" back some amount, to keep the oil properly distributed.
A group shot: from the right, the old hippie (me), Marie Massey, our JPL escort, another couple whose names I didn't get, and Karla Warner, another JPL escort. Jan took the picture. Behind us is the signal processing facility, which unfortunately was off limits to the public at this time, due to the sensitivity of current events (not 9/11 this time, but the fact that the MER missions were in full swing). There is also a mini-visitor's center in the base of the big dish which we did not get to see, but check out this link. I think that tank is for some cryogenic cooling for some of the low-noise amps. Also visible was a bank of a half-dozen or so mufflers for local diesel generators: whenever a "level one" event is occurring (data from Mars, for example) the participating antenna and receiver complex go on local power, so that unexpected interruptions don't occur (I suppose the commercial power source is kept in standby as a backup... an interesting turn of events!). Notice the microwave dishes: these are obsolete now (maybe kept for backup?), with all data moving over a Fiber Optic network. We did notice a few dipoles hanging off of the tower, and one of the trucks in the parking lot definitely belonged to a ham!
Marie took this shot of us on the way out. Don't do what we did: we were staying in Barstow the night before, and we called about 8:15 AM to inquire about the possibility of a tour. We had to drive like the proverbial bat to get there for the 9:00 AM start (in fact we were a little late, but Marie was kind enough to give us a few minutes leeway). You have to go through the gate at Fort Irwin (have valid ID and car registration or rental contract!) and the folks at Goldstone have to let them know that you are coming. Then Marie or another escort will meet you at the gate to Goldstone. Email Marie at "MMassey(at)jgld(dot)gdscc(dot)nasa(dot)gov" to set things up. (Thank the spambots for the address format; hopefully you know what to do!)
Some interesting links:
The DSN Web Site
The TDRSS Network