03/11/2016 3:35 PM AEDT | Updated 03/11/2016 4:09 PM AEDT

How Australia Is Playing A Key Role In The Race To Mars

We don't run the mission, but we sure as hell contribute.

Karen Barlow, Huffington Post Australia
Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex

CANBERRA -- Yeah. Robots have already been to the red planet. Now it is almost time for the humans.

The outgoing U.S President Barack Obama wants it to happen. Citing private and government plans, Obama said America is well on its way to stepping the first feet on Mars and eventually settling the planet.

The question mark is now over what the next U.S President will do.

The goal is to send humans to Mars by the 2030s, but the next serious steps towards that next giant leap for mankind will happen as early as 2018 and Australia has just opened 'The Dish' to make NASA's deep space exploration plans all go smoothly.

Karen Barlow, Huffington Post Australia
The latest "dish" DSS36

The now-operational $120 million DSS36 antenna is an upgraded satellite dish for the Canberra Deep Space Communications Complex which completes a global network with similar tracking stations in California and Madrid.

"It is the critical lynchpin for us," NASA Associate Administrator Robert M. Lightfoot Jr said.

"We talk about being in space, but you don't go to space without having this on the ground to get the data back."

The DSS36 antenna will pick up the more 40 active missions, including communicating with the Voyager spacecraft now in interstellar space, and it is expected to be used to track future manned space flights back to the moon and to Mars and Jupiter's moon Europa.

Karen Barlow, Huffington Post Australia
Assistant Science Minister Craig Laundy, CSIRO Chief Executive Dr Larry Marshall, JPL Deputy Director Lt. Gen. Larry James and CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science Director Dr Douglas Bock

You can watch the dishes here.

For eight hours a day, while the other deep space tracking stations "sleep", Canberra is in charge of tracking.

"I saw the images of Pluto coming through line by line. That was amazing," CSIRO Chief Executive Dr Larry Marshall said.

"But even more amazing, I was in the control centre listening to the Indian Mission. And it brought home to be how interconnected the whole world is through this type or project."

NASA's new spacecraft for astronauts is next.

The Orion spacecraft has been flight tested in Earth orbit, but an unmanned and manned moon mission is coming before the 2020s.

"We are on track and moving forward with that," Lightfoot said.

Susana Gonzalez/Bloomberg
Elon Musk says colonizing Mars

Assistant Science and Innovation Minister Craig Laundy is "blown away" by the work of the deep space tracking station and the prospect of sending humans to Mars and beyond.

"Until Matt Damon went there, I did not know it could be done," Laundy joked.

"It is exciting. I hope I am there to see it. This will be the generation that will get to Mars. I really hope it will happen."

But it's innovative private companies, like Elon Musk's Space X, and nations such as the U.S and China which hold the key.

Karen Barlow, Huffington Post Australia
James Carouso, the US Embassy's Chargé d'Affaires, says space exploration is part of who Americans are

And with U.S Presidential election just around the corner, what would a President Donald Trump or a President Hillary Clinton do to NASA's deep space exploration plans?

James Carouso, the US Embassy's Chargé d'Affaires -- pending the arrival of the next U.S. Ambassador to Australia –- told HuffPost Australia that America's status as explorers of space will not change.

"I can't imagine whomever it elected, now and into the future, ever turning out back on that," Carouso said.

"It is part of who we are. It is what we do."

And through the vital space work just outside Canberra, what Australians do too.

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