16Oct2011

CSIRO's Parkes radio telescope — "The Dish" — turns 50 on 31 October and will celebrate with public Open Days on 8 and 9 October.

The telescope is probably best known for its role in receiving the television signals of the 1969 Moon landing, as shown in the film "The Dish" (2000).

But it has also shone in scientific discovery.

"Parkes is still one of the best-performing radio telescopes in the world," said Dr Phil Diamond, Chief of CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science, which runs The Dish.

Mapping our Galaxy and finding other galaxies, discovering magnetic fields and molecules in space, hunting for gravity waves — all these have been part of a day's work for Parkes.

The telescope played a part in determining the nature of quasars, and has found most of the 2000 known pulsars — small spinning stars that still pose fundamental questions.

Repeated upgrades have made the telescope 10,000 times more sensitive than when it was opened on that blustery day in 1961.

Its surface panels, focus cabin, receiving equipment, pointing system, control panel and data processors have all been replaced.

"The telescope is like a council worker's broom — it's had three new handles and two new brushes, but it's still the same broom," Dr Diamond said.

The standout new technology has been the multibeam — that is, multipixel — receiver, which allows the telescope to see more of the sky at once, he said.

"This has been the mainstay of much of what Parkes has achieved in recent years."

Planning for the telescope began in 1951, and built on Australia's strength in the new field of radio astronomy.

British design, German engineering, and Australian and US funding created a telescope with new design features that NASA used as a model when it was building dishes for its own Deep Space Network.

Three generations of scientists have explored the universe with Parkes. "The Dish is an icon of Australian science," Dr Diamond said. 

Source: CSIRO (Helen Sim) Helen.Sim@csiro.au

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