Multi-million dollar receiver to revolutionise science at Parkes Radio Telescope

Groundbreaking and revolutionary – that’s how a handful of astronomers and scientists have described a new piece of technology for the Parkes Radio Telescope.

The astronomers and scientists, and a number of CSIRO engineers, gathered at the Dish on Tuesday morning to witness and install a new ultra-wide band receiver inside the telescope’s focus cabin.

Onlookers eagerly, and some nervously, watched as the former 15-year old receiver was lowered from the peak of the telescope and the new $2.5 million instrument lifted into its place.

The new equipment acts as a ‘bionic ear’ for the cosmos, catching radio waves and turning them into electrical signals for astronomers to analyse.

It’s novel in design, is a much broader and sensitive system than other ultra-wide band receivers around the world and can see a lot more light than any receiver before.

It also covers a very wide frequency range, from 700MHz to 4GHz and will do the work of several existing receivers.

It was a day Dr Jane Kaczmarek – a new astronomer based in Parkes – said they had all been dreaming about and waiting for for a number of years.

“It’s going to open up a new window into which we can study the universe,” she said.

“This is a world first, so no other receiver in the entire world is able to see this type of light at the same time.

“It’s been a very long time coming, today is a fantastic day...It really is the beginning of a new scientific era in astronomy and especially in Australia.

“The unique sky we have above us is really going to be open for the first time and Australia is very lucky to be having that sky above our heads right now.

“There are a lot of eyes on us right now to watch the successful installation of this.”

The receiver was developed by CSIRO and a consortium of Australian universities led by Swinburne University, and was designed, developed and constructed in Australia.

Funding came from the Australian Research Council, Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Radioastronomy and the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

The Dish was in total shutdown for the occasion and it took half the day to install the new instrument, which joins a second receiver in the focus cabin.

Astronomers have the rest of the week to ensure all systems work well together.

CSIRO researcher and the project scientist for the new receiver, Dr George Hobbs, said the most exciting part was the research they “don’t even know yet”.

“Who knows what this receiver is going to discover,” he said.

“But we do know it’s going to do what we currently do – we study stars called pulsars, these really extreme objects in the universe, and this receiver is going to allow us to study in more detail than ever before.

“So that’s what we know it’s going to do but why we’re all excited is it’s going to do things we don’t know it’s going to do.

“The old receiver could see two radio wave signals at the same time but there’s a big gap between those two, this new one is going to see the whole picture.”

The new receiver will allow the telescope do different projects at the same time.

“While some of us are timing a pulsar, other astronomers could be looking for the signs of newborn stars,” Dr Hobbs said.

Parkes has been continually upgraded throughout its lifetime and is already one of the world’s most productive radio telescopes.

The telescope is now 10,000 times more sensitive than when it was built in 1961 and has found twice as many known pulsars than the rest of the world’s telescopes combined.

Parkes’ operational scientist John Sarkissian was thrilled with the installation of the new receiver.

“It’s going to be more efficient, more productive, but most importantly we’ll be able to do great science with it,” he said.

“It’s extremely sensitive – we’ll be freezing it to -255 degrees celsius so it won’t be picking up the static from the electronics, only from the stars. What we’ll be picking up is the background noise from the sky.

“By cooling it the static level drops dramatically, making it more sensitive.”

Dr Kaczmarek’s position at the Parkes Radio Telescope was created especially from the installation of the new receiver.

She’s been working with the Dish for six months and has been in Parkes for six weeks. Her job is to commission the new receiver.

“Once the receiver is installed, I will put it through its paces to make sure the data that comes out the back of it is what we expect and handed off to astronomers as quickly as possible to do real science,” Dr Kaczmarek said.

“We’ve really been looking forward to this for so many years and to see the culmination happening behind me now...I’m over the moon.

“It is really an exciting day and I really hope that this installation of the new receiver maybe inspires the next generation of astronomers and encourages people to look up and wonder a little bit more.”