Our Parkes radio telescope has been in operation for more than 50 years. Thanks to regular upgrades, it continues to be at the forefront of discovery.
Just outside the town of Parkes in the central-west region of New South Wales, about 380 kilometres from Sydney, is our Parkes radio telescope. It's one of three instruments that make up the Australia Telescope National Facility.
With a diameter of 64 metres, Parkes is one of the largest single-dish telescopes in the southern hemisphere dedicated to astronomy. It started operating in 1961, but only its basic structure has remained unchanged. The surface, control system, focus cabin, receivers, computers and cabling have all been upgraded – some parts many times – to keep the telescope at the cutting edge of radio astronomy. The telescope is now 10 000 times more sensitive than when it was commissioned.
Research with Parkes radio telescope
The Parkes radio telescope is an icon of Australian science. Its large dish surface makes the telescope very sensitive and it is ideally suited to finding pulsars, rapidly spinning neutron stars the size of a small city. Half of the more than 2000 known pulsars have been found using the Parkes telescope.
The introduction of a multibeam receiver, a revolutionary instrument designed and built by CSIRO, has enabled Parkes to be used for large-scale surveys of the sky. These surveys include the HI Parkes All-Sky Survey that found over 2500 new galaxies in our local region, and the Galactic All-Sky Survey that successfully mapped the hydrogen gas in our Galaxy in high detail.
Tracking spacecraft with Parkes radio telescope
While it is operated primarily for astronomy research, the Parkes telescope has a long history of being contracted by NASA and other international space agencies to track and receive data from spacecraft:
- In 1962 it tracked the first interplanetary space mission, Mariner 2, as it flew by the planet Venus, and in 1969 it was a prime receiving station for the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon.
- In 1970 it was called in to help during the Apollo 13 emergency when an explosion crippled the spacecraft while it was en route to the Moon, and its Apollo support continued until the end of the manned lunar missions in December 1972.
- In the 1980s the Parkes telescope was used to receive signals from NASA's Voyager 2 spacecraft and the European Space Agency's Giotto spacecraft, and in the 1990s it supported NASA's Galileo mission to Jupiter.
- In the 2000s it tracked various spacecraft at Mars, and in 2005 Parkes was used in an experiment to directly receive signals from the European Space Agency's Huygens spaceprobe as it descended through the atmosphere of Saturn's largest moon, Titan.
- Most recently, in 2012, Parkes played a support role in tracking NASA's Curiosity rover during its descent onto the Martian surface.
The fictional film 'The Dish' was based on the real role that the Parkes telescope played in receiving video footage of the first Moon walk by the crew of Apollo 11 in 1969.
Fast facts about Parkes radio telescope
- The selection of the Parkes telescope site took several years and had to fulfill key technical requirements, such as a stable geology and low radio-frequency interference.
- It took three years to design and two years to build the telescope; it was officially opened on 31 October 1961.
- The moving part of the telescope, above the concrete tower, weighs 1000 tonnes – more than two Boeing 747 aircraft. This moving part is not fixed to the top of the tower but just sits on it.
- The telescope only receives signals from space, but never sends them.
- Because the large surface of the dish catches the wind like a sail, the telescope must be 'stowed' (pointed directly up) when the wind speed exceeds 35 kilometres an hour.
- It can detect radio waves from seven millimetres to four metres long, and be pointed with an accuracy of better than 11 arcseconds – about the width of a finger seen 150 metres away.
- The telescope operates twenty four hours per day, through rain and cloud.
- About 85 per cent of all time each year is scheduled for observing. Less than five per cent of that time is lost because of high winds or equipment problems. Most of the rest of the time each year is used for maintenance and testing.