To communicate with spacecraft, you need a big dish. We’ve got quite a few around the world already, but the UK is about to get the first one run by a private company to support commercial missions such as asteroid mining and lunar excursions.
The dish is located at Goonhilly Earth Station in Cornwall, southwest UK. It was famously used to beam images from the Moon landings back to Earth, and also transmitted the 1985 Live Aid concert around the world.
Now it is being refurbished as part of a £2 million ($2.8 million) UK Space Agency project to be used by the European Space Agency (ESA) and private firms. If someone wants to send a spacecraft deep into the Solar System (a car, perhaps?) they’ll be able to communicate with it thanks to this dish.
“This is the first station in the world with this deep space capability to be run by a private company [GES Ltd],” a spokesperson for the UK Space Agency told IFLScience. “In the same way private companies are now launching rockets into space, they’re also running facilities like Goonhilly.”
Agencies like ESA and NASA operate dishes around the world, such as NASA's Deep Space Network, to maintain near-constant communication with spacecraft, in places like Australia and Argentina. It’s hoped that this latest development, though, will put the UK on the map in the commercial space sector.
This could be used not only by ESA, but also by other agencies or private companies "aiming to exploit the Moon or mine asteroids," ESA's Klaus-Jürgen Schulz said in a statement.
It will take two years to upgrade the dish, specifically the GHY-6 antenna, which spans an impressive 32 meters (105 feet) across. It will test its capabilities by talking to existing spacecraft like ESA’s Mars Express, which has been in orbit around the Red Planet since 2003.
“We’re working hard to ensure the UK thrives in the commercial space age as part of the Government’s Industrial Strategy, so it’s fantastic to see the world’s first commercial deep space communications network coming to Cornwall,” the UK’s Science Minister, Sam Gyimah, said in a statement.
ESA said that upcoming missions, such as their Mercury orbiter BepiColombo and a mission to explore Jupiter's icy moons called JUICE, put a strain on its current deep space communication capabilities. It will need a capacity of about 50 percent greater to manage all its missions, according to the BBC.
The UK is also currently in the process of considering a commercial spaceport, with Cornwall listed as one of the proposed locations. Last year, a company called Blue Abyss also announced it would be building a facility dedicated to the training of commercial astronauts in the UK.