Above: The CSIRO’s 64-metre-diameter Parkes radio telescope, located in central NSW. Credit: CSIRO/A. Cherney.

AUSTRALIA’S MOST FAMOUS RADIO DISH, the Parkes radio telescope in central NSW, has been added to the official National Heritage List.

Construction of the 64-metre-diameter dish, owned and operated by the CSIRO, was completed in 1961, and almost 60 years later the telescope is still going strong and contributing to important astronomical discoveries.

Known to astronomers as simply “Parkes,” and to the public as ‘the Dish’ — thanks to a largely (but not completely) accurate popular movie — the telescope has been involved in many major sky surveys and intriguing discoveries.

It is with Parkes that astronomers have found most of the known pulsars, and the telescope was used to help determine that our galaxy has an extra, previously unsuspected spiral arm.

Thanks to that movie, however, the general public knows Parkes mostly for the role it played in relaying television signals from the Moon during the Apollo 11 mission in 1969.

A view inside the telescope’s control room during the Apollo 11 moonwalk. Credit: CSIRO

“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,” said the federal Minister for Industry, Science and Technology, Karen Andrews.

“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.”

10,000 times more sensitive

Commenting on the Heritage listing, Chief Executive of the CSIRO, Dr Larry Marshall, said that “Australia has a long and proud history of science-driven innovation, from our first digital computer — CSIRAC, to the first air defence radar which helped to pave the way for the new field of radio astronomy after World War II, and more recently the development of fast Wi-Fi that connects people across the world to the internet.”

“While the Parkes telescope may be old enough to qualify for the National Heritage List, it continues to operate as one of the world’s leading astronomy instruments, observing the Universe day and night, seven days a week, with the most advanced radio receiver systems in the world,” he added.

Regular receiver and instrument upgrades mean the telescope is now 10,000 times more sensitive to faint radio signals than when it was built.

Parkes under construction in the very early 1960s. Credit: CSIRO.

A constant companion

The Australian National University’s Professor Naomi McClure-Griffiths spent more than 2,000 hours mapping the Milky Way using the Parkes telescope for the Southern Galactic Plane Survey and the Galactic All Sky Survey.

“Parkes was the very first telescope I visited as a student and it has remained a constant companion throughout my career,” Professor McClure-Griffiths said.

“I have exploited its incredible sensitivity to reveal the Milky Way’s interstellar gas in all its glory.

“As far as telescopes go, Parkes was my first love – a love that has been kept alive through CSIRO’s outstanding instrumentation on this grand icon of radio astronomy,” she added.

“Parkes is as much a marvel of engineering now as it ever was.”

Love from the locals

Mayor of Parkes Shire Council, Councillor Ken Keith, said the Parkes community is very proud of the telescope and “It holds a special place in all of our hearts”.

“The telescope has attracted an array of talented staff throughout its years, embedding a base of scientific and intellectual knowledge and culture within our region which has in turn further stimulated a scientific interest within the broader community and inspired our young citizens,” he said.

Here are some of the leading scientific discoveries and investigations in which Parkes has played a role:

1962: Researchers used Parkes to determine that our Galaxy has a magnetic field a million times weaker than Earth’s.

1968: Astronomers used Parkes to detected pulsar signals, just weeks after UK researchers announce the first pulsar discoveries.

1969: Parkes received TV signals from the Apollo 11 Moon landing and relayed them to a worldwide audience of 600 million people.  

1973: Parkes was used to discover the Magellanic Stream, a long trail of hydrogen gas flowing from two nearby galaxies (the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds).

1982: Using Parkes, researchers discovered the quasar PKS 2000-330, the most distant object in the Universe known at the time.

1998–2003: Astronomers carried out a survey that revealed a previously undetected spiral arm in our Galaxy.

2003: Astronomers using Parkes found the first known double-pulsar system, the ongoing observation of which enabled scientists to test Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity.

2007: A strange burst of radio waves, latter dubbed a ‘fast radio burst’, is found in Parkes archival data. These FRBs are now a subject of intense study by astronomers all over the world.

2011: Astronomers used Parkes to discover the ‘diamond planet’ — so-called because it is probably made of compressed carbon — orbiting a pulsar.

2018–19: Parkes supported the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex in tracking NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft as it finally left the Sun’s sphere of influence and crossed into entered interstellar space, more than 17 billion kilometres from Earth.