The Dish, Parkes

We were still in the gold country, it was discovered in Parkes in 1862. The gold has long gone, now Parkes is said to be the ‘Elvis’ Capital of Australia. Greg Page (the yellow wiggle) has loaned his private collection of genuine Elvis items of over 1500 objects to the town. There is even a 10-carat diamond ring given to a fan at a concert in 1975. Who could miss all of that? Who would miss all of that? Us. We drove though the town, not even stopping and out to the dish.

(If you love Elvis they have a festival over 5 days in January.)

I wouldn’t have really paid much attention to the dish if it wasn’t for the movie ‘The Dish’ released in 2000. We had seen the move and since we were so close we just had to make the stop.

I can remember watching the moon landing. My mother was fascinated by the accomplishment, I can remember her telling me how my great grandfather was alive when Wilber and Orville Wright made their first flight and now he was witnessing the first man on the moon. Such achievement in one man’s life was amazing. My younger brother who was about 6 at the time wasn’t as impressed. When my mother told him how man had walked on the moon and how incredible it was he simply said “But that’s what they went there to do.”

I liked the sundial outside the building. A subtle point that we really haven’t come that far when you think about time and the birth of planets.

The Dish in not really hunting for E.T, but looking for other planets. It has found thousands of new ones since 1996. The further they look the more earth like planets they are finding.

The telescope was built in 1961 and the basics of the structure have remained unchanged.

Some facts about the dish.

  • The computer and control system are now ten thousand times more sensitive then the system used at the start.
  • NASA copied the telescope’s design for their satellite tracking dishes of its Deep Space Network.
  • The moving parts of the telescope above the concrete tower, weighs 1000 tones, which is more that two Boeings 747.
  • The telescope can be pointed with an accuracy of better than 11 arcseconds. That is about the width of a finger when seen 150 m away.
  • The telescope only receives signals from space, never sends them.
  • The telescope works day and night even through rain and clouds. With only 5% of the time being lost because of high winds (anything in excess of 35kms hour.) or equipment problems. (Most of that time is used for maintenance and testing.)
  • The telescope is used by 300 researchers each year. About 40% of these users are from overseas.
  • The Dish is 20 kms north of Parkes and 380km West of Sydney.
  • Parkes is one of the most highest cited radio telescopes in the world.

The research facility has worked with NASA through the dish’s life being a prime receiving station for the Apollo 11 mission to the moon. It was even called in to help during the emergency that occurred during the Apollo 13 mission. (The Parkes Observatory was active in picking up the very faint radio signals from the craft, helping to save the mission from disaster.) This list of achievements for the dish goes on and on. The dish is at the forefront of astronomical research since being built.

The moon landing moved Parkes and The Dish into history by broadcasting television transmissions of man’s first steps on the moon. The highest wind recorded at Parkes in it’s first decade of operation was just minutes before the Apollo II moonwalk began. The movie was shot on location at the dish and in the town of Parkes and Forbes.

Now some facts and fiction about the movie.

Fact:

  • The Parkes radio telescope did receive television signals from the Apollo II moonwalk.
  • A violent storm did hit the telescope with wind gusts of over 110km per hour. For safety reasons the telescope would not normally operate under such conditions, but the director of the telescope gave the go-ahead to continue.
  • Australian and American technicians worked together to ensure the pictures of the first moon walk were received successfully
  • The picture received though Parkes were the highest quality available at the time.

Fiction:

  • Power to the telescope was not lost and the telescope did not lose track of the spacecraft.
  • There were dozen of people working at the telescope not just the few cast in the movie.
  • The Dish didn’t broadcast the first shot of the moon landing. The first few minutes of the broadcast, NASA sourced the TV pictures from its two stations at Goldstone California and Honeysuckle creek near Canberra. The next 2½ hours of the moonwalk came from the Parkes dish.
  • The Australians and the Americans worked well together, supporting each other in both countries.

In the movie they play cricket on the dish. I didn’t read anything about that in the fact or fiction. I thought well that bit must be true then. Later I read the cricket match didn’t happen in real life and in the movie they only used a tennis ball. I was a little disappointed when I read that.

The control console made for the film was based on a photo from the actual control room in use at the time of the moon landing.   The sets were constructed to resemble the original as closely as possible. After the movie the console was donated to the Parkes dish.

There is a little museum at the dish and is free to enter. You can’t go into the dish itself. On most days you can see it move as it tracks the skies, unfortunately the day we were there they were doing maintenance on the dish so no movement for us. After we had walked around and read everything we made our way into the photo theatre room.   A display of photos was projected onto a sizeable screen. Very impressive, I would like to gain credit for all of the photos but I can’t. Most have come from the display.

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