6 mins read 12 Nov 2020

Murriyang – Connecting Parkes to the Wiradjuri Skyworld

The iconic and scientifically important Parkes radio telescope has been complemented with a new Wiradjuri name, Murriyang, that connects the astronomical sky above to the lands of Australia’s first scientists and astronomers.

Telescopes at CSIRO’s ParkesObservatory received Wiradjuri names at a ceremony on 8 November 2020.Credit: C.Watson/CSIRO.

The Parkes radio telescope has been complemented with a beautiful new name, Murriyang, which means ‘Skyworld’ in the language of the Wiradjuri people – the traditional owners of the lands if which the telescope resides.

The naming of the 64-metre radio telescope by Wiradjuri Elders was announced during NAIDOC week and represents the ‘Skyworld’ where Biyaami (Baiame) – the prominent creator spirit lives. Biyaami is represented in western star charts as the great constellation of Orion.  

In addition to the Parkes radio telescope being given a Wiradjuri name, the now decommissioned (and historical) 18-metre antenna on site has also been named Giyalung Guluman, as well as the local 12-metre antenna, which has been named Giyalung Miil. In Wiradjuri, these names translate respectively to ‘smart dish’ and ‘smart eye’.

Naidoc Week is an annual event where the deep history, 65,000-year-old culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders peoples is celebrated by all Australians – providing an opportunity for all Australians to learn about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island communities.

Telescopes at CSIRO’s ParkesObservatory received Wiradjuri names at a ceremony on 8 November 2020.Credit: C.Watson/CSIRO.

The 2020 theme for NAIDOC week is Always Was, Always Will Be which recognises that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have lived and occupied the Australian continent for over 65,000 years and were some of the first scientists, astronomers, artists, engineers and more.

In a CSIRO blog, Dr. Stacy Mader – a Gidja man from Western Australia, an astronomer and Senior Experimental Scientists at the Parkes Observatory discussed the organising he undertook to have the telescopes named after he noticed the Aboriginal name was listed as ‘not applicable’ and especially after the ASKAP telescopes in WA were given names by the local Wajarri Yamatji people.

“The Wiradjuri nation is a large part of New South Wales, so finding the local Elders was a little tricky. There are no Traditional Owners who live in Parkes,” he said.

“Eventually, I was set on the right path by Trevor Leaman, a cultural astronomer in Orange. He is studying Wiradjuri astronomical traditions in the School of Humanities and Language at the University of New South Wales.

“But I was happy to spend the time looking because it’s very important to know you’re talking to the right people.”

The name was then chosen when Stacy invited the Wiradjuri Elders from the local region to the Parkes site to get a feel for the area, wildlife and history of the telescope as part of its naming.

Parkes Radio Telescope

The three telescopes at the CSIRO’s Parkes Observatory. Credit: Red Empire Media/CSIRO.

The Parkes radio telescope has been in operation for almost 60 years and still serves as one of the most important scientific instruments in the world. The radio astronomy telescope is used by astronomers from around the world to listen to star systems for any techno-signatures of extra-terrestrial civilisations, study high mass compact objects like pulsars, learn about the different regions of hydrogen gas around our galaxy, and in more recent times – aid in the discovery of the elusive Fast Radio Bursts.

Astronomy is not the only purpose for the Parkes radio telescope – to this day it is still used for Very Long Baseline Interferometry studies that help track plate tectonic movements on Earth, in addition to the important role it has played in space communication, with some of the first broadcasts from the Apollo 11 Moon landing streaming to the world through Parkes.

Recently, the Parkes radio telescope – colloquially also known as The Dish – was given Australian heritage status for its successful contribution to human spaceflight, exploration and discovery. The telescope is managed and operated by Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO.

Aboriginal Astronomy

The Milky Way Galactic arc is represented as an emu in the sky, with the Kurin-gai Emu rock carvings displayed in the foreground. Credit: Barnaby Norris and Ray Norris.

Astronomy has played an important and ongoing role in the lore, navigation and utilisation of the Earth’s resources for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people for millennia. These cultures are the oldest (and first) astronomers to use the dynamics of objects in the sky (e.g. the rising of certain stars at different times of the year) to form calendars, agricultural practices and predict the weather. The astronomical knowledge of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island cultures even predates Chinese, Mesopotamian, Egyptian and Greek astronomical practices.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island astronomers have previously observed the variability in red supergiant stars with their eyes, mapped the solar and solstice positions with localised landmarks, used stellar scintillation to predict weather and seasonal changes, and much more.

An excellent resource for further information is the Aboriginal Astronomy website.

Community Thoughts on the Naming of Murriyang

CSIRO’s iconic 64-metre Parkes radio telescopehas been given the Wiradjuri nameMurriyang,which representsthe‘Skyworld’where aprominent creator spiritof theWiradjuri Dreaming,Biyaami(Baiame),lives. Credit: D.McClenaghan/CSIRO.

With the Parkes radio telescope being such an iconic and culturally important piece of Australia’s science history and infrastructure, the announcement brough joy to many people online, with the news spreading quickly through social media platforms.

Astrophysics Ph.D. student Kirsten Banks said she loved the new name for Parkes.

“As a proud Wiradjuri woman, it’s so fantastic to see our language being recognised and the land that Parkes is situated on,” she said.

“Parkes is so important, the legacy it holds for Australia in astronomy is unmatched!”

UNSW Ph.D. researcher, Trevor Leaman (who assisted Dr. Mader on the renaming process) was also incredibly pleased with the naming.

“The name for the main 64m dish is a super choice. “Murriyang” is the Wiradjuri skyworld where the great creator Baiami, represented by the stars in Orion, ascended after he created features of the landscape and animals within it,” he said.

“Having spent six years researching Wiradjuri astronomy, I cannot think of a better name for the telescope.”

Mr Leaman also appreciated the historic contribution that the Parkes telescope has paved for science throughout the last few decades.

“The Dish may be an old bird, soon to celebrate its 60th, but it is still doing great science thanks to its several upgrades in hardware and software over those years. It’s a testament to the engineers who built it and the astrophysicists who maintain and run it,” he said.

“Perhaps, someday soon among those astrophysicists will include a new generation of Wiradjuri astronomers, working alongside an international team exploring the cosmos together.”