7 mins read 11 Aug 2020

An astronomy treasure is added to the national heritage list

The Parkes radio telescope, one of Australia’s most iconic scientific instruments, has been added to the National Heritage List in recognition for its enormous contribution to the sciences.

The CSIRO Parkes radio telescope. Credit: CSIRO/Alex Cherney.

One of Australia’s most iconic and recognised science instruments, the Parkes radio telescope, has been awarded National Heritage status – becoming the 118th item added to the prestigious list which catalogues culturally significant and historically important sites across the nation.

The telescope, colloquially known as The Dish, is managed and operated by Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO and located roughly 350 km west of Sydney, near the central western town of Parkes.

The telescope, a parabolic dish with a 64-metre diameter which makes up one of the many assets managed by the CSIRO’s Australian Telescope National Facility (ATNF), is still used for a range of different astronomy and science projects, adding value to its important historical role – even broadcasting the majority of the immortalised Apollo 11 Moon landing mission in 1969.

Inside the CSIRO Parkes telescope during the Apollo 11 moonwalk. Credit: CSIRO.

Minister for the Environment Sussan Ley said the National Heritage listing recognises decades of work by Australian scientists, engineers and others involved with advancing our nation’s role in understanding the universe, as well as the Dish itself.

“The role of Parkes Observatory as a ground station (along with the NASA site at Honeysuckle Creek) in the 1969 Apollo 11 mission moon landing to a global audience of 530 million people, showcases a world of Australian science technology and engineering design,” Minister Ley said.

“Along the way it has also shone a unique light on the role of rural Australia and its contribution to scientific discovery.”

Minister for Industry, Science and Technology Karen Andrews said the Parkes Observatory is a key part of Australia’s scientific capability.

“The Parkes Telescope was built at a time when Australia was emerging as a global leader in the ground-breaking field of radio astronomy, and most famously played an integral role in man walking on the Moon,” Minister Andrews said.

“The Dish is part of Australia’s proud cultural and scientific history and to this day continues to serve as an important tool in our understanding of the universe.

“As Australia again plays a critical role in the next efforts to put people on the Moon, and go on to Mars, this listing couldn’t come at a more appropriate time.”

History of 'The Dish'

An early image of the CSIRO Parkes radio telescope, shortly after it was completed in 1961. Credit: CSIRO.

As the Second World War ended, scientists working on radar technology started to recognise the value that could be utilised to study the lower wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum from deep space – giving rise to the field of radio astronomy.

Australian scientists, originally involved in advancing radar during the war with CSIRO, then turned their minds to this new field of astronomy – allowing the country to become a global leader in engineering, research and development across radio physics.

The location of Parkes was selected in 1956, being far enough from Sydney’s growing population and yet remain accessible. It was also known that the climate at Parkes is predominately favourable, having many days per year rain free along with a history of stable geology.

Construction of the CSIRO Parkes radio telescope. Credit: CSIRO.

Construction of the telescope started in 1959, progressing through to completion in 1961, with many new innovative and technological engineering tools, techniques and instruments implemented to meet the needs that come with building a single, large steerable dish antenna – one of the first of its kind at the time, and the largest dedicated astronomical telescope in the southern hemisphere.

The design itself would then go on to be used for astronomical and space exploration purposes around the world – including new dishes in Canada, Germany, USA and Spain.

It's a very big dish

The Milky Way and the Dish. Credit: Alex Cherney/Terrastro.

The 64-metre dish, which itself weighs 1,000 tonnes - the equivalent of two jumbo jets, sits atop a housing structure that allows the telescope to be fully steerable using an altazimuth mount. With such a large surface area, high winds (anything over 35 km/h) can present a problem, and so the telescope is parked upright when this occurs. Interestingly, less than 5% of observing time (per annum) is lost because of this, with the telescope being able to continue observations during rain and cloudy weather.

The design of the telescope, including the aluminium panels and mesh, can detect radio waves from millimetres through to several metres, with an accuracy equivalent to seeing the width of a finger at a distance of 150 metres away.

The UWL receiver - a wide band receiver that sits inside the focus cabin of the CSIRO Parkes Dish. Here the receiver is being tested, prior to its installation in 2018. Credit: CSIRO.

Sitting 27-metres atop the struts, is the receiver cabin of the telescope – where the reflected radio waves are focused and acquired across a number of different detectors, including the world-leading Ultra-Wideband Low (UWL) receiver – an instrument with the powerful capability of simultaneously looking at signals from a range of 700 MHz through to 4 GHz.

To keep up with the ever increasing rate of change of discovery and technology, whilst maintaining its lead at the forefront of science research - the telescope has undergone many upgrades, including refurbishing of its reflective surface, changes of receivers and cabling, implementation of new computer systems and more – making it approximately 10,000 times more sensitive than when it was first commissioned.

Science Achievements

The first known double pulsar system was made by astronomers using the CSIRO Parkes radio telescope.

CSIRO Chief Executive Dr Larry Marshall said that CSIRO’s Parkes radio telescope is an icon of Australian science and innovation.

“While the Parkes telescope may be old enough to qualify for the National Heritage List, it continues to observe the universe day and night, seven days a week, with the most advanced radio receiver systems in the world,” Dr Marshall said.

“The telescope still holds the record for detecting the most pulsars - rapidly spinning neutron stars.”

Researchers using the Parkes Radio Telescope have changed the field of astronomy and science, adding greater value to our understanding of the Universe. Some of the achievements made using the Parkes Dish include:

  • Discovery of over 2,500 new galaxies in our local region through the H1 Parkes All-Sky Survey

  • Mapping the hydrogen gas across the Milky Way in unprecedented detail in the Galactic All-Sky Survey

  • Helping confirm the discovery of quasars

  • Discovery of more than half of all known pulsars

  • Ongoing participation in measuring pulsars for the purpose of detecting gravitational waves through the Pulsar Timing Array project

  • The discovery, within archival data and through observation, of mysterious fast radio bursts

Along with science achievements, the telescope has also been used for interplanetary space science and communications, with a history of working with NASA and the European Space Agency that includes:

  • Tracking interplanetary space missions as far back as 1962 with the Mariner 2 Venus fly-by, through to missions like the Giotto spacecraft and both the Galileo and Cassini missions to Jupiter and Saturn

  • Ongoing support for various Martian missions

  • Relaying communications such as those of the Apollo missions, including assisting with the Apollo 13 emergency in 1972

  • The search for radio signals from Extraterrestrial technologies through the Breakthrough Listen project

  • Working with the Very Long Baseline Interferometer (VLBI) project – which helps track the movement of the tectonic plate that Australia resides on.

The Dish has also been used to track the most distant human-made objects in history, the Voyager space probes, as they progressed to the edge and beyond of our Solar System.

In 1995, the Parkes radio telescope was also declared a National Engineering Landmark by Engineers Australia, acclaimed for its “innovative design and precision engineering, with many features that were adopted in later radio telescopes”.

Adding to its cultural significance, the Australian fictional film ‘The Dish’ was centred around the role that the Parkes radio telescope played in receiving footage from the first human lunar landing in 1969.

Video Credit: Working Dog Productions.

View the National Heritage Listing