Guest blog: Bucket List Astronomy Class, day 4 and a half

Posted by Nicole Kiefert
on Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Dish with a frame of sunbeams. // photo by C. Hernandez

By Tyler Coleman and Sandy Ackman

As mentioned in our previous entry, we got a personal tour from John Sarkissian, an operations scientist at the Parkes Radio Telescope, but there was so much to do and see that we needed another entry to capture even part of it.

If this telescope looks like a textbook radio telescope, that’s because it was so well-designed, effective, and durable that radio telescopes since have been modeled after it. Originally built in 1961, its life expectancy was only 20 years, but it was so well built that it exceeded that to the point that it’s still in operation to this day. It was partially funded by Rockefeller and Carnegie while the rest was funded by the Australian government. It’s owned by the Australian government and operated by the CSIRO, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation.  In 1962, it tracked the first interplanetary space mission, Mariner 2, as it passed by Venus. In 1969, its structural integrity was tested on the day of the moon landing by Apollo 11. Originally, Parkes Radio Telescope was supposed to be a backup for transmitting the television feed for the Apollo 11 moon landing, but it was later upgraded to the primary receiving station. When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon they didn’t want to sleep (who would?!). They wanted to go outside on the surface to explore immediately. At the time, the Moon was not yet in the Parkes Radio Telescope’s field of view, but fortunately it took a bit of time for the astronauts to don their space suits. The Parkes team positioned the telescope at its lowest point - facing as horizontal as it possibly could – and waited for the moon to peek over the horizon. While they were waiting, near hurricane-force winds started to pick up. By the time the Moon was in view, gusts of 110 km per hour were whipping by the Dish. The Parkes team, led by the “dishmaster” John Bolton, pushed the limits by pointing the telescope at the rising Moon. Three separate telescopes were receiving the transmission from the moon, but ultimately Parkes had the best quality in picture, and thus, it was their picture that was viewed by 600 million people from around the world.

John Sarkissian shows us around the control room of the Dish. // photo by T. Coleman
In 1970, it was called to help Apollo 13 when an explosion happened on the spacecraft and its support for Apollo missions ended when manned lunar missions ended in 1972. In 1980, it was used to receive signals from NASA’s Voyager 2 and European Space Agency’s Giotto spacecrafts. In 1990, it assisted in NASA’s Galileo mission to Jupiter. In 2005, the telescope was used to directly receive signals from European Space Agency’s Huygens space probe as it entered into Titan, one of Saturn’s moons, atmosphere. The latest mission it has supported was NASA’S Curiosity rover in its decent onto Mars’ surface. Since it has opened, Parkes Radio Telescope has been available for independent research by astronomers through the CSIRO. Currently, one of it’s main focuses has been on the search for extraterrestrial life. Large storage bays collect petabytes of data every day. The hope for astronomers in the CSIRO is that the Parkes Radio Telescope will be one of the main contributors to finding other life in the universe.


My name is Sandy Ackman and my major is Computer Science with a minor in Accounting. This course gave me the opportunity to travel to a lesser traveled country...Australia. My personal transition from Texas to Australia hasn't been so difficult. Coming from one of the most kindest and southern hospitality filled states, Texas, none of that compares to the kindness found in Australia where people will walk up to you and ask if you're all right if they see that you have a dumbfounded look on your face and can't figure out your map, or spark up a conversation about anything and everything on a common bus. Remembering to look for vehicles coming from the opposite sides of the street has been my biggest battle thus far. The southern sky seen on an evening walk our first night has got to be, hands down, the most beautiful thing I have seen in my life. I have never seen so many stars in the night sky before. Seeing the Small Magellanic Cloud (satellite galaxy) so clearly that the Milky Way is gobbling up and wiping away was beautiful.

The BLAsT Class watched the 2000 movie, 'The Dish,' starring Sam Neill and Patrick Warburton, on the 4-hour bus ride from Katoomba to Parkes. Then we met the man who was the movie's science advisor: John Sarkissian! // photo by C. R. James
My name is Tyler Coleman and I'm a double major at Sam Houston State university in both Criminal Justice and Computer Science. I originally wanted to take both astronomy courses in the fall of 2016, but instead decided to wait until this summer and I'm extremely glad I did. Australia is the first country I’ve been to outside of the US and so far it has been exciting and informative. I've always been an avid outdoorsman from hiking and camping all around the US so naturally the stars were something I got to see every night which made me all the more interested in personally seeing the southern sky with my own eyes. I can't wait to see what the rest of the trip has in store for us. 

John Sarkissian discusses the Dish's current ambitious project: the search for extraterrestrial intelligence! // photo by T. Coleman

Life at the Dish - turn off your cell phones and watch your step! // photo by C. R. James

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