As a kid heading north out of Auckland on holiday road trips I used to love going past the big satellite earth station near Warkworth.
For decades, the earth station, which was built by the New Zealand Post Office in 1971 and is owned by Telecom, formed a major link for voice and data communications and even broadcast TV links to other countries.
With the Southern Cross Cable and other satellite connections available to it, the earth station has been surplus to requirements at Telecom for years, but the landmark will live on as a research installation for AUT University’s Institute for Radio Astronomy and Space Research.
The earth station is sited just a few hundred metres away from a 12-metre radio telescope operated by AUT on land also owned by Telecom.
Use of the 30-metre dish is a boon for AUT’s Professor of Astronomy, Sergei Gulyaev, as it significantly increases the collecting area and spectrum range its radio telescope can access.
What is the team looking skyward for? Galactic nuclei, star formation, the Milky Way’s centre, cosmic masers and gaseous components of our Galaxy are some of the things they are studying.
The dish is now a major piece of research infrastructure for the New Zealand science system, with the dish working in conjunction with with Australian radio telescopes to form the long-baseline array.
The Institute is also using the dish as a base for some interesting commercial work. As Delwyn Dickey from the Rodney Times reports:
The Warkworth facility is also the last one in the Pacific before the Mauna Kea Observatory 7000km away in Hawaii.
This has led to IRASR picking up a 10-year contract to track the Space-X vehicle servicing the International Space Station as it heads across the Pacific
The Institution of Professional Engineers has an interesting background article on the construction of the Warkworth satellite earth station:
The first step in the project was to select a site. This was not an easy task because of various considerations. The criteria included screening from other radio transmissions, such as radar, a good horizon to enable a clear view of the sky, easy access for power, a communications link back to the international telephone exchange at Auckland, access to mains power supply, and good weather without excessive wind speeds. A site north of Auckland was also preferred to avoid the antenna having to ‘look’ through the aircraft flight paths and holding patterns associated with Auckland International Airport. Good rock foundation conditions were vital as well, in order to support the 2,300 ton weight of the 30 metre diameter antenna with its massive reinforced concrete pedestal.
Some pictures of the site in earlier days: