Secrets of the Universe exposed

27 Mar 2013

Author: Caroline Bergman Hart

Photography: Courtesy Australian Synchrotron


In a non-descript Melbourne suburb is the biggest stand-alone piece of scientific infrastructure in the southern hemisphere.
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Welcome to the world of Australian Glenn de Vine, who works at NASA on the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) project, helping to develop tools for space exploration.

For de Vine, the path to NASA has involved thousands of hours of dedicated research and hard work.

De Vine originally studied Mechanical Engineering at the Queensland University of Technology in 1996 but soon realised that wasn’t where his desires lay.

“I realised my passion was physics and, more specifically, astronomy and astrophysics,” de Vine says. “I really wanted to work for NASA and be involved in contributing to building things for space and space research, in addition to my own interests of physics and astrophysics.”

After graduating in 2001 with first class Honours in physics and theoretical physics at the Australian National University, de Vine completed his PhD in physics in 2006.

After a short period in France working in an observatory in Nice, de Vine applied for a NASA Postdoctoral Program (NPP) fellowship at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to work on the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) project. “During my second year at NASA, I was offered, and accepted, a permanent position at JPL.”


For more than 50 years, NASA has been trying to reveal the unknown galaxy formations outside of earth. One of the key projects has been the JPL, now in its fourth decade, which pushes the outer edge of space exploration: the project has proved invaluable in providing new insights and discoveries in the studies of earth, its atmosphere, climate, oceans, geology and biosphere.

De Vine is now concentrating on the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) project, which project involving twin satellites that are taking detailed measurements of Earth’s gravity field. GRACE has been in orbit since 2002, and has turned out to be one of the most successful NASA missions ever.

“GRACE measures classical gravity specifically of the earth,” de Vine says. “It measures ice-loss and water loss/motion with great precision and there is high interest to place a follow-on mission in orbit before the present one fails due to age, low fuel supply and a redundant system.”

To track these changes, GRACE uses GPS and a microwave ranging system to measure micron-scale variations in the 220-kilometer (137-mile) separation between the two spacecraft, developed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

De Vine is busily working away on the GRACE follow-on mission, which is planned for launch in 2017.

“This is exciting for me because I am leading parts of the laser ranging development and components that I have helped to design, test and build, and integrate into the spacecraft will go into space,” he says.

“This mission is also critical for monitoring the melting of ice, such as in Greenland and the poles, as well as underground water loss and drought, such as in India, California and Australia.”

De Vine now works in his dream job and one that every boy or girl who has stared at the stars and wondered what more is out there, thinks about.

“It's super-exciting working for NASA because I feel like I am contributing to furthering the frontiers of space research and working on missions that inform us about the entire universe, like LISA, as well as critical information about the Earth, like GRACE,” de Vine says.

“It's also pretty cool seeing what other people are working on here. I walk past the Spacecraft Assembly Facility almost every day on the way to my lab. That is where they put together, for example, Curiosity, the Mars Science Laboratory, which is a huge rover (about the size of a VW beetle), and due to land on Mars in August 2012.”

But Australia’s connection doesn’t stop there with Canberra playing a vital role in NASA research.

“Australia participates in NASA's Deep Space Network (DSN), which is an international network of antennas that supports interplanetary spacecraft missions and radio and radar astronomy observations for the exploration of the Solar System and the universe,” Ed Kruzins, director, Canberra Deep Space Communications Complex, says.

“Australian participation is through the Canberra Deep Space Communications Complex (CDSCC) located at Tidbinbilla near Canberra.  CDSCC is one of three deep-space communications facilities placed approximately 120 degrees apart around the world at Canberra, Australia (CDSCC), Goldstone, in California's Mojave Desert (GDSCC); and at Madrid, Spain (MDSCC).  We are therefore quite unique.”

Australia’s role in space exploration has a fair way to go yet.