Parkes Radiotelescope diary 1989

I was cleaning out the garage and found some old stuff, including a written account of a trip I took to observe at the Parkes Observatory radiotelescope as a summer student in 1989. So, without further ado:

Hooray! I’d been accepted for a summer vacation scholarship at the Australia Telescope National Facility. This means a wonderful opportunity to engage in some scientific research and to gain experience in working in professional astronomy. There’s also the small matter of earning three hundred bucks a week…

It was all set. I was to begin working on Monday, the 4th of December. That gave me a week off after my last exam at uni. Whoah, a holiday! When was the last time I had one of those?

During my exams, I received a phone call from my ATNF supervisor, Dick Manchester (the man who was once heard to say, “There are more things in life than pulsars.” This is a second hand account, so its veracity is to be questioned).

“How would you like to go to Parkes?” he asks.

“Great, when?”

“November 27.”

There goes the holiday! But wait, I have already planned to do things with friends nearly every day of that week. The last thing was an ice skating trip on the Friday, the 1st of December. I said I was busy until at least then.

“Well, do you want to fly up on Friday evening?”

I’m not one to knock back a free plane trip, so on the appointed Friday there I was, sitting in a minute ten-seater plane with blistered feet and aching legs from the skating and almost falling asleep due to the several late nights just gone. (I’d just made the plane by a mere ten minutes, but that’s another story.)

An hour later and the plane had touched down at Parkes. There were about six cars and a dozen or so people waiting for their friends and relatives. I hadn’t the foggiest who would meet me and take me out to the telescope. Walking across the tarmac, I noticed one guy whose sloppy joe was emblazoned with a star-field and a radiotelescope dish. Okay, that was easy enough.

The Parkes Observatory radiotelescope

We drove through Parkes and out north to the telescope. When we arrived at the sleeping quarters, I’d just missed dinner. The guy threw a plate in the microwave for me and then went out to the telescope (a kilometre away) to tell Dick I’d arrived.

The food was excellent. I investigated the quarters and found them to be quite luxurious (at least, compared to those at the Molonglo Observatory Synthesis Telescope near Canberra, where the closest thing to wall-to-wall carpet is the wool on the backs of the sheep who graze on the telescope property (the caretaker bought the sheep to keep the grass down, but that’s another story too)). I was lethargic and tired and felt very much like falling on to my bed and going to sleep. I went back out to the kitchen, to find that Dick Manchester was just entering. He introduced himself and said that they would be observing all night.

He asked, “Do you feel like staying up until 4 a.m.?”

My eyelids drooped another notch.

He added, “Or maybe you’d like to rest tonight and take the late shift tomorrow night?”

I slept well that night.

When I awoke, I noticed that a rather stiff breeze was blowing outside the building. I went to breakfast, where Dick, Andrew Lyne (from Jodrell Bank), Simon Johnston (a Scotsman) and Mikey (a work experience student from a local school) were eating. This meant that nobody was in the telescope observing.

“We had to stow the dish because of high winds,” Dick explained, “Do you want to climb up to the top? This is the perfect time.”

The view from up there
Looking down from from the top of the telescope

An hour later and we were hanging on for dear life to the ladder leading up to the focus cabin, a hundred or so(?) metres up in the air, with gale force winds ripping at us. (Okay, so I dramatise a bit, but I sure didn’t feel perfectly safe up there.) Examining the receivers in the relative safety of the cabin, I thought that all we needed was for it to start raining before we got down. Ever heard of Murphy’s Law? Experimentally verified once again.

On the Dish
Standing on the telescope dish, with some fellow students

The winds died down a bit and we finally got some observing done. Just before dinner, however, a thunderstorm threatened and the dish was stowed again. We all ate dinner together, at least until the storm hit. The wind howled and the rain lashed down. Lightning split the otherwise pitch black sky (although the sun was still reasonably high, the clouds all but completely cut out its light) and the thunder roared through the walls, roof and foundations of the quarters. Pow! and the lights went out. The cooks supplied us with a candle and we ate to its feeble flickering. Dick rose and left to make sure the telescope was okay and to raise the dish up on to its jacks for extra stability.

He came back soaked to the bone. A tree had fallen across the road to the telescope, he told us. As he spoke, the rain stopped, the clouds broke and the sun shined through.

We did manage to get some observing done that night. Staying up until 4 a.m. isn’t all that bad. Especially when you only have to touch the controls once every hour and a half and can spend the rest of the time playing games on the Macintosh. What you learn at Parkes is good eye-hand coordination as you rack up high scores on Tetris.

Science in action
A fellow student plays Tetris on the Macintosh

There is also a neat program which displays star maps from any location on earth at any date and time from 1000 BC to 4000 AD. You can also look at the solar system from other planets and track the planets in their orbits at any speed you desire. You can predict eclipses and call up exhaustive data on any of hundreds of galaxies, nebulae, and globular clusters. We were tempted to plug the telescope receivers into the Mac and gather our data from it instead of from the sky.

It's quite simple, really
Some of the actual telescope control computers

Precisely at 4 o’clock, Simon and I were relieved by Dick and Andrew. We went to our rooms, fell asleep and didn’t wake up until lunch time. And so it was the next night, except that we had to get up early for the drive back to Sydney. Not as much fun as the flight up, but I certainly slept more in the car!

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