Parkes dishes it out for the 50th anniversary of the moon landing

OPEN DAYS: CSIRO ran tours inside The Dish from 9am to 4pm over Saturday and Sunday, which proved very popular over the anniversary. Photo: Christine Little
OPEN DAYS: CSIRO ran tours inside The Dish from 9am to 4pm over Saturday and Sunday, which proved very popular over the anniversary. Photo: Christine Little

It's a monumental monolith proudly standing on the horizon and if you are driving from Orange to Parkes as I was on Saturday morning you can't help but be impressed by your first sight of The Dish.

Driving along mid-morning we were surprised by the the lack of traffic but then realised as we turned into Telescope Road leading to the site that everyone had made it before us. Cars spilled out of the car park, along Telescope Road while bus loads pulled in to disgorge their excited passengers.

As you enter the site The Dish dominates the scene. Around us throngs of individuals and families were in moon landing mood and there was a festival-like atmosphere as people wandered around the site.

There were kids in NASA tracksuits with breathing apparatus backpacks. Never have I seen so many expensive cameras.

Suddenly you heard the deep rumble of motors and The Dish started turning; you don't have to be a propeller head to be totally mesmerised by this magnificent monster - and just a little over-awed and proud of the immense role it played 50 years ago and continues to play.

And talking of propeller heads - they were everywhere and I say that respectfully because some of them actually had caps with propellers on and of course a white coat - so no mistaking who we needed to sidle up to for information.

The Dish has a diameter of 64m and by the way it only receives, it doesn't send out signals. Three enormous struts hold up the receiver (the pointy bit). The receiver operates like a radio and can be tuned to listen in on various frequencies. Originally changing from one spectrum to another took time but the march of technology has meant it can be done in seconds now and covering a wider spectrum of frequencies. The radio telescope is now 10,000 times more sensitive than when built in 1961.

Picture planet Earth in all its beauty, teeming with life. Now imagine that life on Earth only existed in an area the size of a pinprick. And you begin to gauge the magnitude of the existential quandary.

CSIRO

However physically upgrading the receiver was nowhere near as easy.

The old receiver box sits on the site like some kind of moon landing vehicle filled with racks of equipment. In order to take the old receiver off and install the new one The Dish had to be tilted to an almost vertical position, "so the bottom rim of it was just this high" a propeller head said pointing to somewhere close to his knee.

That's a scary thought given the moving part of the telescope, above the concrete tower, weighs 1000 tonnes - more than two Boeing 747 aircraft and is not fixed to the top of the tower but just sits on it.

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That means the telescope must be 'stowed' (pointed directly up) when the wind speed exceeds 35 kilometres an hour.

Behind The Dish sits a smaller dish which is used to pick up multiple signals; it has an array of 39 receivers which can be used to pick up noise and then cancel it out when scientists are trying to listen to a particular signal.

And noise brings us to another subject.

Parkes was originally chosen from a number of potential sites because of its stable geology and low radio interference.

The geology may not have changed but the radio interference is a different matter. The sign at the gate asks all visitors to put their mobile phones into flight mode.

Noise pollution is a growing problem and one that may may get considerably worse.

"Google wants to put balloons up there," a propeller head said with a roll of his eyes and a withering look.

The Loon project aims to bring internet services to remote areas via a transmitting "balloon" in the stratosphere.

The Dish has an amazing history through its connection with the moon landing but it continues to play an important role in deep space research and is constantly in use. 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. The remaining time each year is used for maintenance and testing.

The Dish has detected many new types of objects including pulsars, the rapidly spinning remnants of supernova explosions that send out regular flashes of radio waves and has detected over half of the more than 2000 known pulsars.

Pulsars offer potential as extremely accurate clocks and are possible alternatives to satellite-based global positioning systems, the CSIRO has said.

In the meantime the search for life elsewhere continues with Parkes playing its role and I leave you with the words from the CSIRO:

"Consider this.

"The observable universe is 13.7 billion light years across, compared to 0.04 light seconds for Earth. Given the unfathomably small proportion of the universe that is occupied by Earth, there is something of an absurdity to the notion that life doesn't exist elsewhere.

"To give these numbers some context, picture planet Earth in all its beauty, teeming with life. Now imagine that life on Earth only existed in an area the size of a pinprick. And you begin to gauge the magnitude of the existential quandary."

Parkes on Saturday - with thanks to the South Pacific Concert Band for some background music