Straining Upwards to Hear the Cosmos

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Sep 14, 2013
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Photo by Phil Hart, used by permission. Click to engugliuccenate.

About 400 kilometers (250 miles) west of Sydney, Australia, stands the Parkes radio telescope. A single dish mounted on a wonderfully anachronistic brick tower, “The Dish”, as Aussies lovingly call it, is a monumental 64 meters (210 feet) across. It sits, quite literally, in the middle of a sheep paddock, again attesting to the oddly dichotomous nature of modern and traditional.

The telescope runs 24 hours a day, every day, and has been in operation now for over a half century. It was vital to the Apollo missions (though its role was not quite what was shown in the fun movie “The Dish”; operations at the Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station were combined with those of Parkes in the movie) and still does important scientific work.

Astrophotographer Phil Hart visited Parkes recently for a conference, and while the weather was not the best, it cooperated long enough for him to take that photo above, what may be the best picture of the telescope I have ever seen.

It's actually a mosaic of four shots, and it shows the telescope as its kind is meant to be: tilted upwards, watching the skies, and recording what it finds. The Milky Way serves as both a backdrop for the dish as well as target; the telescope commonly observes astronomical phenomena in our galaxy, including the radio flashes from tiny, ultradense pulsars, and the faint radio emission from far-flung clouds of gas.

I visited Parkes when I was first in Australia back in 2004, and had a lovely time. I gave a talk there (about the Moon “hoax”, which they loved, given their role in Apollo; I met and had a fantastic conversation with two men who worked on Apollo at the time), and was given a tour of the facilities. I was struck by the sense of anachronism, the modern tech mixed with older machinery, the very fact of a gigantic eye on the sky sitting in a remote farming community.

It was wonderful.

Hart’s photo brought all that back to me, and makes me long to visit there once again. I couldn’t last month when I was in Sydney, but perhaps if there’s a next trip south for me, I’ll carve out the needed time to see this old beauty once again.