Australia’s most famous telescope has been awarded National Heritage status, making it the 118th site to be added to the list of natural, historic and Indigenous places of outstanding significance.
Renowned for its role in the 1969 Apollo 11 mission moon landing and immortalised on screen in the Australian film The Dish (2000), the CSIRO Parkes Observatory is the first functioning scientific instrument to be granted this status.
“The Parkes Telescope was built at a time when Australia was emerging as a global leader in the ground-breaking field of radio astronomy, and most famously played an integral role in man walking on the moon,” said Minister for Industry, Science and Technology Karen Andrews.
“The Dish is part of Australia’s proud cultural and scientific history and to this day continues to serve as an important tool in our understanding of the universe.”
Developing the Dish
Australia got off to a good start in radio astronomy just after World War II, with staff at the CSIRO Radiophysics Laboratory using wartime equipment such as radio-receiving antennas to study radio waves. But by the late 1940s and early 1950s, the country was ready for a more strategic approach.
The first proposal to build Australia’s radio astronomy credentials was to construct a large air-warning antenna that would double as a radio telescope. There was also a plan to build a wooden antenna about 30.5 metres in diameter, rotating on a track. However, to make these, or any other ideas, come to life, the CSIRO needed cash.
Funding ultimately came from the Carnegie Corporation, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Australian Federal Government. The engineering design for the telescope was done by Freeman Fox, the same firm responsible for designing the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Barnes Wallis, then the Chief Engineer of Vickers, was also involved in the design.
Construction began in 1959 in Parkes, New South Wales — a site chosen as it was accessible from Sydney but far enough away to be shielded from the city’s radio noise. The telescope was officially opened on the 31 October 1961.
To the moon… and beyond
Most famously, the 64-metre diameter radio astronomy telescope played a key role in the 1969 moon landing, receiving the television signals from the Apollo 11 mission and relaying them to 600 million people across the world.
However, the telescope continues to be an important tool for Australian and international astronomers today, and remains at the cutting edge of radio astronomy. While its basic structure remains unchanged, the surface, control system, focus cabin, receivers, computers and cabling have been continually upgraded over the years, resulting in a telescope 10,000 times more sensitive than when it was built.
Pinpointing pulsars and tracking spacecraft
As one of the largest single-dish telescopes in the southern hemisphere dedicated to astronomy, one of the radio telescope’s key roles is in finding pulsars, or rapidly spinning neutron stars the size of a small city. In fact, half of the 2,000 plus known pulsars have been found using the Parkes telescope.
Over the past sixty years the telescope has also been contracted by NASA and other international space agencies to track and receive data from spacecraft, including in 1970 when it was called in to help during the Apollo 13 emergency, and in 2012 when it played a support role in tracking NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover.
“Australia has a long and proud history of science-driven innovation, from our first digital computer, CSIRAC, to the first air defence radar, which helped to pave the way for the new field of radio astronomy after World War II, and more recently the development of fast wi-fi that connects people across the world to the internet,” said CSIRO Chief Executive Dr Larry Marshall.
“While the Parkes telescope may be old enough to qualify for the National Heritage List, it continues to operate as one of the world’s leading astronomy instruments, observing the universe day and night, seven days a week, with the most advanced radio receiver systems in the world.”
kind the telescope is on dish or wts dish/telescope same as PhL physical or dish is horizontal telescope projects towards so explain telescope mounted on dish or w
pls also put the phone/numbers email of the persons associated
radio signal w ppl how does antenna (physical piesce)receive signals /w radio signals (physical /what form) and from how much distanse
air warning antenna double as radio telescope physical like howrbrdg or
31 agst oct 61 from 59 w strs
I was interested to note that you wrote “The engineering design for the telescope was done by Freeman Fox, the same firm responsible for designing the Sydney Harbour Bridge” ! You’d no doubt be aware of the stoush between JJC Bradfield and Sir Ralph Freeman over who should have the credit as being the Engineer for the Bridge. But I think you have it right – Sir Ralph and Freeman Fox were responsible for the detailed engineering design of the Bridge as built while JJC was of course responsible for the concept engineering design.
Like most projects, success has many parents! In the case of the Dish it would probably be worth finding out who was responsible for the concept design and the radio telecommunications technology that made it work. I don’t think that would have been Freeman Fox but someone in CSIRO or possible Prof WN Christensen from Sydney Uni who was a leading light in Australasian Radio physics and astronomy – they too need to be credited.
Hello again Charlotte,
I thought about this a bit further and wondered whether my old firm Macdonald Wagner and Priddle were involved as during my time there they were certainly engineers for another CSIRO telescope project. As the attached reference shows I was right – one of the partners Ray Priddle was :
“Priddle was an excellent mathematician. He designed the structures of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization’s radio-telescope at Parkes, the University of Sydney’s Mills Cross radio-telescope near Canberra, and the Stellar Interferometer at Narrabri. In 1968 he visited a number of the world’s largest telescopes; later, in association with the university, he made models of several alternative designs of polar-axis struts. His last project, still incomplete at the time of his death, was the Anglo-Australian Observatory’s 150-inch (381 cm) optical-telescope at Siding Spring, near Coonabarabran.”
I think it is likely they were the local design partner for Freeman Fox. So Ray Priddle should also be credited.
In the early 60’s and still crawling I visited the telescope with my parents.
I had the privilege of crawling in the dish.
And somewhere in boxes of slides I have the proof.
Dad was divisional engineer for the NSWGR.
In common with many others, this article appears go have been influenced heavily by the film ‘The Dish’. The Parkes facility was not heavily involved at all in the reception of TV signals from the Apollo 11 lunar module and Armstrong’s first steps on the moon. My understanding is that It may have played a minor role when the main Australian facility in the Apollo program – Honeysuckle Creek – was off-line for a minute or two, but it was certainly this latter that played the pivotal role in this endeavour. Andrew Tink’s excellent book ‘Honeysuckle Creek’ is well worth a read by anyone who is interested in the truth behind the part Australia played in the Apollo programs. The book gives a gripping account of the role of its director Tom Reid and colleagues in the onward transmission of some of the most watched images in human history as Neil Armstrong took his ‘small step for man, and giant leap for mankind’.