Seeing Australia Through Its Telescopes / by Dan Zambonini

Parkes Radio Telescope

By Dan Zambonini

I took my first flight 12 years ago, when I was 22. I’d just started my Astrophysics PhD, and it was ‘my turn’ to head out to Australia to use one of the telescopes. The other members of my academic group never really seemed that interested in the travel; they were real academics who thought of travel as wasted time that could be better spent on research and writing. Even the weeklong runs on the telescopes were of little interest to them; sure, they badly wanted the data, but not the nocturnal lifestyle required to get it.

I can’t say that the 24-hour London to Sydney flight was anything other than miserable. It was before the proliferation of on-demand entertainment systems or iPads, and I was totally unprepared. The hours crawled by. I strained to hear every other bass-heavy word of the low-contrast film projected 30 feet away. I thought my sinuses were going to explode as we touched-down in Singapore for re-fuelling, and I vowed to never fly again.

Then we reached Sydney, and everything changed. I’d never been somewhere so bright. Where the food actually tasted of something. Where people were happy by default – a complete contrast to the British, who think that we’re being conned if we talk to someone who’s smiling.

A pleasant 30-minute train ride past the partially built Olympic village took me to Epping, a small Sydney suburb where I’d stay in university lodging for a few nights before heading to the telescope. The birdlife amazed me. Talkative parrots and galahs seemed to perch in every tree, and 2-feet tall cockatoos stood their ground on the pavement, as I was forced to walk around them. That was my first lesson: in Australia, the wildlife rules. You don’t mess with it.

Having only taken my first flight a few days prior in a jumbo-jet, my next flight was a total contrast. A six-seat Cessna flew me and a couple of locals north to Coonabarabran, the closest town to the telescope, touching down on what seemed to be a field with a dirt-track landing strip. As the locals disembarked and got into their cars, I realised that I was standing alone in a field next to a couple of closed buildings, with nothing else around. My academic colleagues hadn’t told me what they should have: that I needed to pre-book the transfer from the airport to the telescope.

Luckily, one of the families must have noticed me as they started to drive away, and came back to give me a lift into the town. That was my second lesson: Australians are a decent bunch of people.

As I stood in the 3,000-person town, not knowing what to do next, a taxi saw me standing with a backpack and pulled up. I guess Coonabarabran doesn’t normally get tourists. I asked if he’d take me to the Siding Spring observatory in the Warrumbungles, and he explained that he wasn’t a taxi, but the taxi – there was only one that drove to the observatory.

It was getting dark now, and the 27km drive to the observatory was slower than expected, on the account of kangaroos. They were everywhere, and they were big. You don’t want to hit a kangaroo at speed, for their sake or yours.

Mount Stromlo - Siding Spring Telescope
Mount Stromlo - Siding Spring Telescope

The telescopes were perched on top of a fairly low (by astronomy standards) mountain range, which meant there were still lots of trees – and bugs – at that elevation.

I would sit in a small room next to the telescope dome and control it remotely – everything was hooked up to the computer. The only time I needed to go into the dome was at the start and end of each session, at dusk and dawn, to set it up and shut it down.

This was scarier than it sounds. In the darkness, there were plate-sized spiders taking refuge who-knows-where in the massive metal building, and I really don’t like spiders. I also had to ‘top up’ the liquid nitrogen to cool the instrumentation every night, without protection gear. That wasn’t scary though – I could only think about the gigantic spiders. Who cares if I froze my arm off – there were spiders about!

On subsequent trips, I visited two other telescopes.

Parkes Radio Telescope
Parkes Radio Telescope

The Parkes radio telescope is beautiful. Located in flat farming land about a five hours drive north-west of Sydney, it rises from the horizon as you approach it. It looks fairly small until you get up close – the metal dish is 64 meters in diameter and weighs about 1000 tonnes, perched on top of the control building.

The dish can be lowered almost to the horizontal. Rumour has it that a car once parked in the wrong place, and was totally crushed by the dish as it scanned down to the horizon one night. A ‘no parking’ circle is now evident on the ground beneath the dish, which certainly adds some credibility to the story.

It’s a radio telescope, rather than an optical telescope (it detects radio waves rather than visible light), so you can collect data in the day as well as the night, making it much more pleasurable to use. You can also load-up a long sequence of directions on the computer, automating a huge amount of the work.

You can’t totally relax though. That’s one big dish, and it’s located in a huge flat farming area. When it gets windy, that dish behaves like a 64m, 1000 tonne sail, and can easily rip the building off the ground if the dish is pointed towards the wind. So, when it gets stormy and windy, the fun begins. First, you have to point the dish skyward as quickly as possible. As you can imagine, it’s not the fastest object in the world to move.

Then, just as the storm really picks up, where do you really want to be? Yup, you have to climb out on top of the building, and race around the underneath of the dish to physically clamp down the dish to the building. In a windy storm. Maybe at night.

I recommend watching The Dish if you haven’t seen it, which is based on the role that the Parkes telescope played in televising the first Apollo moon landing. It’s a great movie that captures the majesty and importance of the telescope.

ATCA
ATCA

My time at the third telescope was brief.

The Australia Telescope Compact Array (ATCA) is a fairly complicated beast; it’s not just one radio telescope – it’s six 22m dishes working together.

I had trained for days in Epping, trying to get to grips with the software that controls the dish movements. I’d then driven the 7.5 hours to the telescope, near the town of Narrabri.

When I arrived towards the end of the afternoon, there was a message waiting for me, to phone my mother. My grandmother, who was very important to me, had died. All I can remember is going to bed and sleeping for what seemed like days, but was actually just the one night. I’m not sure why sleep was my reaction to the news, but at the time, it probably seemed like a better option than trying to make small talk with strangers. The next morning I re-arranged my flight, drove back to Sydney, and headed back to the UK.

I’ve been back to Australia three times since, on vacation. For me, the country will forever have a connection with my grandmother, which makes it even more special. I’m heading back in September and I look forward to it sparking those memories once again.

Photo Credits