Mars Calling Cornwall

Photo by Juli Kosolapova on Unsplash

One of the oldest and largest satellite earth stations in the world, based in Cornwall, will receive the UK’s first ever direct transmission from the planet Mars.

Goonhilly Satellite Earth Station is located on Goonhilly Downs on the Lizard peninsula in Cornwall, not far from Helston. Its first dish Antenna One (referred to as Arthur) was built in 1962 to communicate with the Telstar system. The first transatlantic television broadcasts from the United States to be seen in the UK were received via the Telstar satellite and Arthur on the 11th July 1962. Further dishes were added over time, including the largest, Merlin with a diameter of 105 feet. The site was used in a number of key events, including the Apollo moon landing in 1969 and the Live Aid concert in 1985.

In 2006 BT announced it was going to shut down satellite operations at Goonhilly in 2008 and move them to another site in Herefordshire. The visitor centre at the Cornish site remained open until 2010. It had proved a popular attraction for visitors to Cornwall, with over 80,000 people visiting in a good year. In addition to one of the fastest cybercafes in the country, it also had interactive exhibits, a shop, a cafe and did tours around the site.

By the end of 2010 it looked like the site would be sold off and all the dishes demolished, except for Arthur which is a grade two listed structure. However, a satellite communications engineer, entrepreneur and small business owner called Ian Jones had heard about the station’s plight and put together a plan. He formed Goonhilly Earth Station Ltd (GES) with two colleagues, and in January 2011 signed a three year deal to lease the antennas. During the next three years GES built up the business by attracting universities and satellite operators. In February 2014, with some extra funding from a venture capital trust, GES completed the purchase of Goonhilly from BT.

In July 2015 the European Space Agency (ESA) began a feasibility study to see if the Goonhilly antennae could be used to support Artemis 1 of the Orion Spacecraft. By February 2018 an £8.4 million project had been agreed to upgrade GHY-6 antenna so it would be suitable for ESA and NASA deep space communications. In April 2018 the station joined ESA and Surrey Satellite Technology to form a partnership for lunar mission support services. Then a few weeks later, Peter Hargreaves, a UK businessman invested £24 million in the company, which gave him a controlling share.

Now in 2021, with the latest technology in place, Goonhilly has become one of the most important satellite stations on earth. It is currently working with space agencies from Europe, China, the UAE and the USA. GES has been working with ESA over the last few weeks using Mars Express to test their GHY-6 antenna. They have been tracking the spacecraft as it orbits the red planet. At the same time it has received signals from the UAE Space Agency Hope Mission, which entered Mars' orbit on the 9th February. This was followed the next day by the Chinese Mars Mission Tianwen-1 which should touchdown in May. The 18th of February saw NASA’s JPL Perseverance rover land on Mar’s surface, and Goonhilly was listening. Although not an official downlink, the site will be able to receive and potentially decode the signals from the rover, should NASA need support.

Just over a decade ago things looked bleak for the Cornish satellite station, but now with its upgraded dish it will be the world’s first commercially operational deep space site. Goonhilly can now look to the future, and the stars.

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