Saturday, 21 July 2007

The Dish

About 20 km north of Parkes is the first of a string of radio telescopes and observatories that stretches all the way to Narrabri. CSIRO's radio telescope at Parkes is used for all sorts of fantastic deep space projects but is probably more widely known as the star of The Dish. (Oh, there were some humans in the movie too.)

The telescope was commissioned in 1961. It was used to provide the images of the Apollo 11 moon landing because they were of higher quality that those from NASA's two stations at Honeysuckle Creek (near Canberra) and Goldstone (in California).

It is some vast number of times more sensitive to radio signals now that it was then. It's so sensitive that the remote-controlled model of the telescope in the visitor's centre has been switched off because it interferes with the operation of the real instrument. For the same reason, visitors have to switch off mobile phones and other electronic equipment and turn off car engines and soon as possible. (I wasn't sure if this included digital cameras, so I took this shot from the car park, just as I was driving out.)

I don't know anything about astrophysics but I was impressed by the brains that can design machines like this to investigate deep space and then interpret the signals received from distant galaxies.

The visitor's centre provides information on the history and use of the telescope. One of the projects:
A survey to find galaxies that have been obscured by the Milky Way, which is the stars and dust of our own Galaxy. To optical telescopes, the Milky Way hides about 15% of the sky beyond our Galaxy, like a band of grime on a window. However, radio waves travel easily through the gas and dust. The Parkes Survey has, in effect, cleaned the window, revealing may hundreds of previously hidden galaxies.

I repacked the car boot this evening, shifting around the bag of glass screw-topped vials and the quadrats fabricated from plastic pipe. I can't help feeling that it would be much more fun to play with a 1,000-tonne, 64 m radio telescope ...

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