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Students to help NASA, US reach for Mars

AAP logoAAP 2/11/2016 Jennifer Rajca

"Who wants to go to Mars?"

That was the question from incoming US Ambassador James Carouso as he stood in the shadows of an Australian-built antenna which will one day help in the journey to the red planet.

Several hands shot up amongst students from Melrose High School - as well as CSIRO chief Larry Marshall.

"Good on you. Study hard. The guys here can make it happen," he told the gathering at the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex on Thursday, for the unveiling of the latest spacecraft-tracking antenna.

Mr Carouso said thinking back to watching the moon landing in 1969 on a black and white television at summer camp still gave him chills.

"It was the most exciting moment of my life leading up to that time," he said.

Assistant Science Minister Craig Laundy poked fun at the fellow guest, revealing he was merely a twinkle in his parents' eyes back then.

But he was blown away by the towering dish, known as Deep Space Station 36 (DSS36), at the site originally opened by Robert Menzies in 1965.

The complex and its work demonstrates the strong relationship with the United States on space exploration, he said.

Asked how he views the prospect of sending humans - potentially an Australian - to space, Mr Laundy told reporters that until Matt Damon went there he didn't know it could be done.

"He ran into strife and he came back," he said, referencing the 2015 movie The Martian.

"But on a serious note, it's exciting."

Lainey Morgan, one of the keen students from Melrose High, is excited for the opportunities the antenna will mean for her generation.

The 15-year-old studies astronomy and could one day see herself joining a Mars mission.

Her classmate Quinn Graco told AAP he's always loved learning about space.

"I always used to want to be an astronaut, but right now I'm really passionate about being behind the scenes," he said.

"Working for the jet propulsion laboratory would be an absolute dream."

NASA associate administrator Robert Lightfoot said the antenna, which collects and sends data back to earth, will help in the efforts to get more rovers and then humans on Mars about 2030, and the organisation is forever grateful.

"If you didn't know it, you're already on NASA's journey to Mars right here," he said to the staff.

Mr Lightfoot said the students present were part of the "Mars generation" who hadn't been alive when there wasn't someone in space.

"You're the generation that has to take us to the next level."

His colleague from the jet propulsion laboratory Larry James said the antenna would also help in missions such as measuring Jupiter's gravity billions of miles away.

He thanked the staff at the NASA facility managed by the CSIRO, for helping not only build the antennas which dot the Tidbinbilla landscape, but also keeping them working.

"Through bad weather, through power outages, through kangaroos hopping on top of the antenna," he added.

"Whatever may happen here in Australia."

DSS36 has been in the making since February 2010 and is the second of two new 34-metre antennas.

It helps monitor 40 active space missions and will next year take the international lead on a new monitoring project 'Follow the Sun' for eight hours a day.

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