Science & Technology

60 Years After It First Gazed at the Skies, the Parkes Radio Telescope Is Still Making Breakthroughs

Credit score: CSIRO

The CSIRO’s 64-meter Parkes Radio Telescope was commissioned on October 31, 1961. At the time it was the most superior radio telescope in the world, incorporating many revolutionary options which have since develop into commonplace in all large-dish antennas.

Via its early discoveries it shortly turned the main instrument of its sort. Immediately, 60 years later, it’s nonetheless arguably the most interesting single-dish radio telescope in the world. It remains to be performing world-class science and making discoveries that form our understanding of the Universe.

The telescope’s origins date again to wartime radar analysis by the Radiophysics Laboratory, a part of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Analysis (CSIR), the forerunner of the CSIRO. On the Sydney clifftops at Dover Heights, the laboratory developed radar to be used in the Pacific theatre. When the second world battle ended, the know-how was redirected into peaceable functions, together with learning radio waves from the Solar and past.

Parkes radio telescope remains to be an icon of Australian science, and one a part of the Australia Telescope Nationwide Facility. Credit score: CSIRO

In 1946, British physicist Edward “Taffy” Bowen was appointed chief of the Radiophysics Laboratory. He had been one among the good engineers, dubbed “boffins”, who developed radar as a part of Britain’s secret prewar navy analysis. The Radiophysics Laboratory had a devoted radio astronomy group, led by the good Joseph (Joe) Pawsey. Lots of the group’s members went on to develop into leaders in the nascent subject of radio astronomy, together with Bernie Mills, Chris Christiansen, Paul Wild, Ruby Payne-Scott (the first feminine radio astronomer), and John Bolton.

Whereas the group’s preliminary analysis targeted on radio waves from the Solar, Bolton’s consideration quickly shifted to figuring out different sources from farther afield. By the early Fifties, the Dover Heights radar dishes had found greater than 100 sources of radio emissions from the Milky Means and past, together with the indicators from supernova explosions. These observations established the Radiophysics Laboratory as a world-leading middle of radio astronomy.

By 1954, the know-how at Dover Heights was outdated and out of date, prompting Bowen to provoke the subsequent step for Australian radio astronomy: a state-of-the-art new radio telescope.

Early antennas had been a lot less complicated, to not point out smaller. Credit score: CSIRO

He determined the most versatile choice was to construct a big, totally steerable dish antenna. The eventual price ticket was A$1.4 million (A$25.6 million in in the present day’s phrases) – far past CSIRO’s finances at the time.

The Menzies authorities agreed to fund the mission, supplied at least 50% of the cash got here from the non-public sector. Utilizing his wartime contacts, Bowen secured A$250,000 every from the Carnegie Company and Rockefeller Basis, plus a variety of personal Australian donations.

British agency Freeman Fox and Companions produced the detailed design, incorporating recommendations from legendary engineer Barnes Wallis, of “dambusters” fame. Primarily based on the obtainable finances and desired performance, a diameter of 64 meters was agreed for the dish.

1955 design notes by Barnes Wallis. Credit score: CSIRO

The chosen website was close to the city of Parkes, about 350km west of Sydney. This location had favorable climate circumstances and was freed from native radio interference. The native council additionally enthusiastically provided to cowl the price of a few of the earthworks.

In 2020, the native Wiradjuri folks named the telescope Murriyang, a standard identify which means “Skyworld.”

The telescope’s building started in September 1959 and was accomplished simply two years later. On October 31, 1961, the Governor-Basic William Sidney, Viscount De l’Isle, formally opened the telescope in a ceremony attended by 500 friends.

The Governor-Basic (centre) greets friends at the telescope’s 1961 opening ceremony. Credit score: CSIRO

John Bolton was appointed the founding director of the telescope. Underneath his dynamic, decade-long tenure, astronomers made a string of great discoveries that established the dish as the premier scientific instrument in Australia.

Astronomers revealed the immense magnetic subject of our Milky Means galaxy. A number of months later, the telescope detected quasars, the most distant recognized objects in the Universe – a discovery that elevated the dimension of the recognized Universe tenfold. To cap off a memorable first yr, Parkes tracked the very first interplanetary area mission, Mariner 2, when it flew previous Venus in December 1962.

In the Nineteen Seventies, researchers found and mapped the immense molecular clouds interspersed by our galaxy. The research of pulsars – rotating stars that emit beams of radio waves, quite like a lighthouse – turned a significant subject of analysis. Parkes has found extra pulsars than all different radio observatories mixed, together with the solely recognized double pulsar system, noticed in 2003.

In the Nineties, the distribution of galaxies was mapped to a distance of 300 million gentle years, revealing the complicated construction of the Universe. Extra not too long ago, Parkes found the first Quick Radio Burst – a brief, intense blast of radio waves created by an as-yet unknown course of. The telescope has additionally been concerned in the Seek for Additional-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI), together with the ten-year Breakthrough Listen project, which started in 2016.

To the public, the telescope is maybe greatest recognized for its area monitoring, particularly its position in the Apollo lunar missions. But it surely has additionally supported different important missions equivalent to NASA’s Voyager 2, which flew previous Uranus and Neptune in the Nineteen Eighties and crossed into interstellar area in 2018. In 1986, Parkes was the prime monitoring station for the European Giotto mission to Halley’s Comet. And subsequent yr, Parkes will monitor a few of the first industrial lunar landers.

Parkes monitoring the Apollo Moon mission in 1969. Credit score: CSIRO

Initially supposed to function for 20 years, the telescope’s longevity is a results of fixed upgrades. Current enhancements embrace a brand new ultra-wideband receiver that may scan an enormous vary of radio frequencies, and CSIRO-developed “phased array feeds” (PAFs) that permit the telescope to look at as much as 36 factors in the sky at as soon as. Work is now underway on a cryogenically cooled PAF that, when put in in 2022, will double this quantity. With these upgrades in place, a single receiver can be utilized to ship greater than 90% of present Parkes operations.

Development took simply two years. Credit score: CSIRO

It’s arduous to say how lengthy the Parkes dish will proceed to work. It is determined by future upgrades and whether or not the telescope’s construction stays in good working order. However astronomers will at all times have a necessity for a big single-dish antenna.

Parkes has maintained its world-leading place in radio astronomy by continuously adapting to fulfill new necessities. Immediately it stands as an icon of Australian science and achievement. Sixty years after it first educated its eye on the sky, the future nonetheless seems to be vibrant at Parkes.

Written by John Sarkissian, Operations Scientist, CSIRO.

This text was first revealed in The Conversation.The Conversation

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