Parkes Radio Telescope is getting a new receiver to enhance view for scientists

MAY 2018: Onlookers watched as the former 15-year old receiver was lowered from the peak of the Parkes Radio Telescope on May 15, 2018 and the $2.5 million ultra-wide band receiver lifted into its place. Photo: Christine Little
MAY 2018: Onlookers watched as the former 15-year old receiver was lowered from the peak of the Parkes Radio Telescope on May 15, 2018 and the $2.5 million ultra-wide band receiver lifted into its place. Photo: Christine Little

In an exciting announcement welcomed with open arms from local scientists, CSIRO's iconic Parkes Radio Telescope is getting a new receiver that will significantly increase the amount of sky it can see at any one time.

The receiver, called a cryoPAF, is one of two projects that were announced on Friday that will deliver technology enhancements for Australia's leading radio telescopes.

It will enable new science and support local innovation in the space sector.

The Dish, as it is fondly known, only had a new multi-million dollar ultra-wide band receiver commissioned and installed inside its focus cabin in May 2018.

But the telescope's operations scientist John Sarkissian OAM said this new receiver will complement the earlier technology installed.

"The new receiver will allow us to simultaneously observe 36 adjacent points on the sky, giving us an enormous field-of-view," he said.

"Conventional receivers, like the wide-band receiver, only observe one point at a time.

"This new receiver will enhance our survey work and allow us to investigate many new phenomena.

"The two receivers together will make the Parkes Observatory the leading instrument of its kind in the world."

REVOLUTIONARY: When the $2.5 million ultra-wide band receiver was installed at the Parkes Radio Telescope in May 2018, it was described as revolutionary. Now the new cryoPAF receiver will complement it. Photo: Christine Little

REVOLUTIONARY: When the $2.5 million ultra-wide band receiver was installed at the Parkes Radio Telescope in May 2018, it was described as revolutionary. Now the new cryoPAF receiver will complement it. Photo: Christine Little

Australian Research Council Linkage Infrastructure, Equipment and Facilities (LIEF) grants have been awarded for the development of a new receiver for Parkes, as well as a major upgrade for the Australia Telescope Compact Array near Narrabri.

Both telescopes are owned and operated by Australia's national science agency, CSIRO, for use by astronomers in Australia and around the world.

A $1.15 million LIEF grant will support a $3 million project to build a sensitive receiver for the Parkes Radio Telescope.

Once complete, the new cryoPAF will sit high above the Parkes telescope's dish surface and receive radio signals reflected up from the dish, CSIRO said in its announcement.

"Its detectors will convert radio signals into electrical ones, which can be combined in different ways so that the telescope 'looks' in several different directions at once," the statement read.

"The cryoPAF will be cooled to -253°C to reduce 'noise' in its electrical circuits, enhancing the ability to detect weak radio signals from the cosmos at frequencies from 700 MHz to 1.9 GHz."

The grant was led by The University of Western Australia, which will coordinate construction and commissioning of the cryoPAF.

CSIRO will design, build and install the instrument.

CSIRO said there are five further research organisations involved in the project.

Professor Lister Staveley-Smith from The University of Western Australia node of ICRAR, who led the grant application, said the cryoPAF has three times more field of view than the previous instrument, allowing quicker and more complete surveys of the sky.

"The new receiver will help astronomers to study fast radio bursts and pulsar stars, and observe hydrogen gas throughout the universe," Professor Staveley-Smith said.

A phased-array feed or PAF is a close-packed array of radio detectors.

CSIRO has previously designed and built innovative phased-array feeds for its ASKAP telescope in Western Australia, and a test version of the cryoPAF was used successfully on the Parkes telescope in 2016.

Director of CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science, Dr Douglas Bock, said that in addition to boosting the capabilities of the Parkes telescope, the cryoPAF receiver technology had the potential to create spin-off opportunities.

"Phased arrays have found extensive use in defence radar, medical imaging and even optical laser beam steering, with emerging applications in satellite communications and telecommunications," Dr Bock said.

"Their further development at radio wavelengths has technology applications beyond radio astronomy with the potential to fuel the growth of space-related industries here in Australia."

The second LIEF grant, worth $530,000, will support a $2.6 million upgrade of the Australia Telescope Compact Array.