Australia's bush capital will get the first look at the New Horizons fly-by of Pluto on Tuesday, with CSIRO's Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex (CDSCC) receiving close-up images of the dwarf planet before anywhere else in the world.
The New Horizons spacecraft set off from earth in January 2006 on a mission to discover more about Pluto and the region beyond the solar system's planets, known as the Kuiper Belt. Now, 3,463 days later, New Horizons is set to make its closest approach to the dwarf planet as part of NASA's bid to "answer basic questions about the surface properties, geology, interior makeup and atmospheres" of Pluto and its moons.
Back on earth, less than 20 kilometres from the centre of Canberra, the CDSCC is preparing to play its role in this world-first encounter, receiving images taken just 12,500 kilometres from the surface of Pluto.
Part of NASA's Deep Space Network and run by the CSIRO, the CDSCC is one of only three tracking stations in the world capable of two-way radio contact with spacecraft as far away from Earth as New Horizons is currently travelling. The other two stations are located in California's Mojave Desert and just outside Madrid in Spain, meaning the facilities are roughly 120 degrees apart across the world.
The radio signals will take roughly 4.5 hours to reach the CDSCC and will be so weak by the time they reach Earth that CSIRO says they'll be nothing more than "tiny whispers." But thanks to the high sensitivity of Canberra's big dish, "Pluto will come in loud and clear."
According to the head of CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science, Dr Lewis Ball, Pluto could hold the key to unlocking some of the big secrets of the solar system.
"There is so much we don't know and not just about Pluto, but also about similar worlds. Reaching this part of our solar system has been a space science priority for years, because it holds building blocks of our solar system that have been stored in a deep freeze for billions of years," he said.
"CSIRO is capturing space history in the making. We will be rewriting textbooks and science that will be taught in the classrooms of tomorrow."
It's not the first time Canberra has loomed large in the history of space exploration.
NASA's Honeysuckle Creek space tracking station, also just outside Canberra, took prime responsibility for beaming back the early TV pictures of Neil Armstrong's moon landing in 1969, working alongside the CDSCC to capture the first moon walk.
Before Pluto, the CDSCC has also given us close-up images of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, and is currently supporting some 45 different space missions.
According to Bell, "capturing Pluto will be the capstone of this amazing space adventure."
NASA's New Horizons spacecraft will make its close encounter with Pluto at exactly 9:49.57 p.m. AEST on July 14.