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Astronomy Down Under: Parkes Observatory

Scoping out Radio Astronomy

A blog dedicated to telling the history of radio astronomy: its evolution, its discoveries, and its telescopes

Astronomy Down Under: Parkes Observatory

Olivia Wilkins

In the middle of New South Wales, a territory in the southeastern part of Australia, lies "The Dish"—a 64-meter radio telescope that has long played a part in contemporary astronomy history. Known as "the grand old lady of astronomy," the Parkes Radio Telescope brought us broadcasts of the Apollo 11 lunar mission, received signals from the Mars rover Opportunity, and even starred in its own film The Dish (2000).

Parkes Radio Telescope (Ian Sutton, 2009)

Plans for the Parkes Telescope were in the making a decade before its construction in 1961. Radio astronomy research in Australia was seeded in the Radiophysics Laboratory, operated by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in Sydney, during secret radar research initiatives of World War II. As other radio astronomy centers emerged in the United States, Great Britain, and the Netherlands, Taffy Bowen—chief of CSIRO's Radiophysics Laboratory—was determined to build the world's best telescope in Australia and secure the nation's place as the leader in the new science of radio astronomy.

Parkes Radio Telescope (CSIRO, 1969)

The large dish of the Parkes telescope has been instrumental in finding pulsars. There are more than 2,000 known pulsars, half of which have been discovered using Parkes. The Parkes telescope has also been used for all-sky surveys in the southern hemisphere, leading to the discovery of over 2,500 new "local" galaxies (HI Parkes All-Sky Survey) and the detailed mapping of hydrogen gas in the Milky Way (Galactic All-Sky Survey). In addition to its single-dish efforts, the 64-meter telescope is one of several antennas used in the Parkes Pulsar Timing Array and the International Pulsar Timing Array.

Parkes Radio Telescope

Since its completion in 1961, Parkes Observatory has been making its mark on areas other than radio astronomy, most notably tracking spacecraft placed into orbit by NASA and other space agencies. The year after it made first light, the Parkes radio telescope tracked Mariner 2's flyby of Venus, the first interplanetary space mission. Not only did the Parkes telescope serve as a receiving station for the Apollo 11 lunar mission, but it also provided support for Apollo missions until December 1972, when manned missions to the moon ended. This support included receiving transmissions from the Apollo 13 after it was crippled after an oxygen tank exploded. In addition to lunar missions, interplanetary missions besides that of Mariner 2 have benefited from use of the Parkes telescope, including NASA's Galileo mission to Jupiter; the European Space Agency's Huygens mission to Titan, Saturn's largest moon; and NASA's Mars rover, Curiosity.

Movie poster for the 2000 Australian film, he Dish, which dramatizes the Parkes Radio Telescope's role in the Apollo 11 moon landing

The Parkes telescope has garnered fame in radio astronomy research, spacecraft tracking, and comedic film, but the comedy surrounding the telescope isn't limited to the 2000 Australian film. In 2015, PhD student Emily Petroff discovered the source of perytons thought to be from deep space. Perytons are fast radio bursts, and since 1998, they have been observed only in data from the Parkes telescope. While working at Parkes Observatory, Petroff realized that these signals—which are almost indistinguishable from extragalactic radio signals—actually came from astronomers opening the kitchen's microwave oven prematurely, a mundane solution to a mystery that had puzzled astrophysicists for nearly two decades.