The Big Dish, an iconic emblem of Ireland’s technological past, turns to YouTube and the public in hopes of securing a new scientific future.
Monday, 09 October – As Space Week 2023 closes out a national celebration of space technology and galactic exploration, Ireland’s largest space asset sits idle, quietly rusting in an East Cork field. Set on the campus of what was formerly Irish Telecom, the 32-metre steel dish was built in the 1980s at a cost of IR£8M to transmit calls from Ireland to America via satellite before being mothballed by Eircom. Today, with no government funding available to preserve the 220 tonne structure and give it renewed purpose, its caretakers are turning to the public to secure a new scientific future for the monolith known as The Big Dish.
Bruce Hannah is the Chief Technology Officer at the National Space Centre (NSC), which acquired the Dish as part of a land purchase in 2013. Hannah has spent two years assessing both the structural and mechanical state of the 42-metre-high steel assembly. “At this point the Dish urgently needs upwards of €60,000 for remedial preservation work. That’s basically a power wash, rust treatment, and a coat of protective paint.”
The high cost is due to the 2500 square meter surface area of the 32-meter monolith. “It’s a lot of paint,” offered Hannah.
Rory Fitzpatrick of National Space Centre stands before The Big Dish, showing the scale a 32-metre, 220 tonne antennae at Elfordstown Earthstation in Midleton, Cork. A campaign has been launched at https://bigdish.ie to fund urgent remedial preservation works so the Dish can be refitted for a new future as a lunar or Martian communications groundstation or as a research telescope.
Longer term, NSC CEO Rory Fitzpatrick sees a future filled with stellar possibilities for the iconic dish. “Realistically, The Big Dish can be retrofitted as a satellite communications groundstation for Martian or Lunar communications, supporting some of the more than 50 robotic and manned space missions planned for the next 10 years.” These missions have been announced by international space agencies including NASA and ESA as well as commercial companies in the NewSpace sector.
Jordan Wright, known as The Angry Astronaut on his 120,000 subscriber YouTube channel, points to NASA as the perfect example of The Big Dish’s value. “NASA recently completed a new 34-meter dish, the DSS-53 antenna, which went online in Madrid in 2022. It took 8 years to build and cost €35M. The Big Dish can be refitted to do the same job in just two years at a cost of only €5M.”
Hannah points out that it is also possible to refit the Dish as a radio telescope to observe and study deep space. “The Big Dish would be an incredible tool for Irish researchers and for academic institutions internationally.” With the next largest dish in Ireland half its size, The Big Dish is also Ireland’s only opportunity to join the internationally prestigious VLBI global array of dishes working together in concert to produce Earth’s best view of the Universe.
Unfortunately, funding for the project has proven as elusive as the UFOs The Big Dish could also be used to study. “Science Foundation Ireland doesn’t have a funding stream for infrastructure, even though this dish is one of only eight of its kind in the world and an incredibly precious global asset for researchers,” explained Fitzpatrick. “We’ve also been unsuccessful with approaches to Enterprise Ireland to open the commercial opportunities a refurbished Dish would offer.”
The NSC is now launching a public campaign in the hopes of raising both awareness of this opportunity and the necessary funds to preserve the dish. Donations are being taken on The Big Dish website at https://bigdish.ie As part of the campaign, Wright will kick off a day-long donation drive on Tuesday the 17th of October. He’ll be livestreaming to his audience of thousands with tours, interviews, and give-aways live from the foot of The Big Dish. Speaking about his reasons for doing the event, Wright said, “This Dish has too much potential to just ignore it. Donors will know they’re getting value for money supporting the future of scientific knowledge and space exploration.”
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ABOUT THE NATIONAL SPACE CENTRE
The National Space Centre (NSC) is Europe’s most westerly teleport and Ireland’s only commercial ground station. Opened as Elfordstown Earthstation in 1984 at a cost of IR£8M (€25M today), the facility celebrated ten years of operation as the NSC in 2020. The company provides commercial broadcast services, ground control support for satellites and space craft, academic research partnerships and space industry consulting. The NSC’s co-located Space Campus is home to more than a dozen Irish space startups and EU-headquartered space enterprises.
ABOUT THE ANGRY ASTRONAUT
Jordan Wright is a journalist who covers spaceflight, space policy and space science on his popular YouTube channel, The Angry Astronaut. Wright’s interest in space began in childhood when his uncle worked at NASA. Since starting the channel in 2019, Wright has grown to a base of over 120,000 subscribers, traveling the world to share live space content and engage with industry experts and commentators for his audience.