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See the 'Center of Our Universe' deep inside NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory


Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Thursday, October 16, 2014, 10:04 AM - Interested in space science and space exploration? Do you pore over the web and the news looking for the latest info on what's happening in and around our solar system? Well, here's where you can take a virtual step into the heart of Deep-Space Central: Mission Control, at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

When it come to The Universe - the vast space that stretches out for billions of light years in all directions and is populated by hundreds of billions of galaxies, each containing hundreds of billions of stars - locating the centre of all of that isn't easy (and it's probably nowhere near us). 

However, if want the centre of 'our universe' - where the majority of our interplanetary spacecraft are controlled from and where we communicate with our robot planetary explorers - this is where you need to go:


With engineers on duty here 24/7, this is at the heart of Mission Control, in the Space Flight Operations Facility of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena, Calif. From here, NASA scientists and engineers keep careful tabs on all the spacecraft currently travelling through interplanetary space, orbiting around Earth, the Sun, the Moon and other bodies of the solar system, collecting the data they send back and issuing commands to the spacecraft during their daily operations. The engineer closest to the camera is monitoring and directing the Cassini spacecraft, currently investigating Saturn and its moons. A little closeup of his workstation is below.


And another cool detail, just up and to the left of his station, is this little 3d plaque. This shows the orbital path of Cassini starting in 2017, when the spacecraft begins the final leg of its mission, when it will orbit between the planet and its rings, to get the closest views of Saturn ever recorded!


Who else was talking to JPL at the time?


Six different spacecraft were exchanging information via NASA's Deep Space Network at the time this photo was taken, all routed through the Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex, in California's Mojave Desert.

That's Voyager 1 talking via the big 70-metre DSS-14 dish (shown to the right), from the spacecraft's location on the edge of interstellar space. Cassini is on the smaller DSS-15 antenna. 'MOM', which is India's Mars Orbiter Mission, is communicating via DSS-24. Messenger, which is currently circling Mercury is on DSS-25, and both MAVEN - NASA's latest arrival around Mars - and the European Space Agency's Mars Express orbiter, are talking via DSS-26. Also, that's far from a static display. The wavy lines above each antenna on the display represent real-time transmissions being sent and received. Two other locations in the Deep Space Network, in Madrid, Spain and Canberra, Australia, weren't in the right position to be receiving or sending data at the time from any of the far-flung spacecraft at the time, but even as one stands in the centre, these stations can pick up messages from other regions of the solar system.


LRO - the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter - which is in orbit around Earth's Moon, links up to the network via one of the Canberra communication dishes (the lower panel of the far left screen).

If you ever want to see exactly who is talking to NASA's Deep Space Network at any time of the day, go to their website: eyes.nasa.gov/dsn/dsn.html

The gravity of what goes on in this room can't be lost on anyone who steps into it. Every NASA mission that is specifically designed, built and operated by JPL, relays through this room, as well as those operated by other NASA centers and even those run by other space agencies around the world! 

If you watched the landing of the Curiosity Rover on Mars, in August 2012 - the moment that the engineers were jumping and cheering and clapping each other on the back in the 'Landing Room' next door, engineers in Mission Control immediately took over to communicate with the rover, run it through its paces and ultimately begin driving it to its current location, at the base of Mount Sharp. The Opportunity rover, also on the surface of Mars, is controlled via this room (as was Spirit, until she stopped communicating a few years ago). Both of these communicate via the orbiters circling Mars. If you enjoy the images of Saturn returned by Cassini, they come through here (although the engineers only see the 1s and 0s and it's up to the scientists to make the images pretty).

So, where does the 'Center of Our Universe" come into all of this? Well, that would be this plaque, right here.


Installed under a glass panel in the floor, in the center of the room, this was put there by the operations team so that if anyone wanted to say that this room was the Center of the Universe, they would have at least some point of reference for their claim.


WANT MORE INSIDE INFO FROM JPL?: Come back to Weather Network news for more stories from the NASA JPL Open House, and the special NASA Social event for Comet Siding Spring's flyby of Mars and the Rosetta landing on Comet 67/P Churyumov–Gerasimenko!


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