blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit

blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit
By Alison Hobbs, blending a mixture of thoughts and experiences for friends, relations and kindred spirits.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

A private tour of The Dish

Film poster and other
memorabilia on display
at Parkes
On the morning of December 28th, we were lucky enough to be in the company of the site's technical co-ordinator at the radio telescope near Parkes, Brett Preisig, who is also a keen aviator at the local flying club (Parkes Aero Club). He and his wife Sharon live in Parkes and we had met them for a drink in a local pub the previous evening, when Chris and he had also arranged to go flying, early on, before the thermals became problematic. Brett took Chris flying in his sports 'plane, "Flight Design 7884", and had then driven along the unsurfaced road to the telescope. George had brought Sha, Eddie and I the longer way round, on the Henry Parkes Way and Telescope Road.

The control tower is out of bounds to ordinary mortals, and to young children, so Sha stayed behind with Eddie at the Visitors' Centre, while the rest of us had the privilege of seeing the astronomers' premises. We went into a building where they kept the spare multibeam (13-beam), cryogenic receivers and the hard hats. Once we had donned these, we walked across to the tower to enter its Astronomers' Room and board room. The control room was on the next level up, full of (to me) mysterious equipment and computers, embedded or otherwise. The clock that's so essential to the detection work is unofficially called The Atomic Clock; it is a hydrogen microwave laser that loses track of no more than 2 nanoseconds per 24 hours. The master control panel (MCP) looks like an old style analogue machine, but actually works digitally, showing the Zenith (how far up the receiver is pointing) and the Azimuth (how far across the sky), if I have understood it rightly. We learned about the TPS, the Telescope Protection System, and how the many man-made satellites in the sky can cause too much RFI, Radio Frequency Interference, at times. There used to be a Multibeam Correlator, but it was no longer in its cupboard in the tower; it is kept in storage. The Dish is actually controlled remotely, these days, over the internet, so that people like George can observe from anywhere in the world, using this facility. Some of the pulsars George and his team observe are more than 15,000 light years away.

Brett shows us some astronomical calculations
Some of the work they do here is being funded by SETI, the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence. They haven't found any yet.

The TPS, showing recent "alarm" events: high winds, etc.

Atomic Clock's display panel

The Apple logo is a jokey addition

Control room at the Parkes telescope

The steering machinery,
with heavy Dish above
The next part was quite exciting. Warning! said the notice. Authorised personnel only above this point. Hard hat protection required. Please let the operator know if you pass this point. We were about to climb the steps to the outside ledges. I told myself not to suffer from vertigo and went ahead, holding on to the railings tightly. There were great views from up there. As we edged round the ledge under the big dish, which is finely balanced, we squeezed past its surprisingly small steering motor. In the central core of the tower we were shown the Rotator, three concentric cylinders with slack cables that can move when the 'scope slews around on its pedestal. We saw a slight movement and heard a hum as the dish was automatically re-orientated. The pedestal has a solid shield with a gap at its base to compensate for expansion when it is warmed by the sun. Weight and balance factors are a challenge, said Brett. That's maybe an understatement.

Looking towards supplimentary receivers at Parkes
Chris climbing the ladders to the next ledge

George showing us Barnes Wallis' invention
The "most important bit", according to Chris, was "where we saw the machinery that did the tracking to compensate for the earth's rotation. This is naturally a big problem for such a large telescope. Brett showed us the solution, designed by Barnes Wallis of bouncing bomb fame, which consisted of a much smaller tracking system, a sophisticated version of the system used in amateur astronomy, which shone a laser onto a spot to which the large telescope then aligned itself, purely using the laser's beam." (I let Chris dictate those last few sentences because, although I think I followed the explanation, I failed to take notes at the time.)

Finally we descended inside the tower down the spiral, metal staircase and so back to normality. I bought some souvenirs in the gift shop where the shop assistant told me that they liked George's visits.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

1000km in New South Wales

Sydney to Parkes

Eddie takes it easy in the back of the car
Blue Mountains bush land in the clouds
We took the M4 to Blaxland, then on through the Blue Mountains -- Wentworth Falls and Katoomba all crowded with tourists and rainy -- thence to Blackheath, where it was so foggy that we could hardly see the road, let alone the spectacular view George had promised us from Govett's Leap. At the lookout there was much merriment, one of the people there showing everyone else what we should have been seeing by passing round a picture taken on another day in this same spot, on his smart-phone. Lunch was at the corner pub, that served big pies. Continuing through Lithgow, we went over a big hill, the highest point of the drive, and down the twisting road to Bathurst, now on the Western Plains which stretch for many miles till the desert begins. George says the soil turns gradually redder as you go west. Underneath lie gold and copper and hidden waterways. The trees send their roots down to the water, which on the surface is scarcer, only visible in a few creeks and billabongs.

On the Escort Way mid afternoon where we stopped to swap drivers Sha found a roadside stall selling freshly picked cherries, where she bought 2kg of them. Next to the stall stood a long shed: the Lucknow Skin Shop, with cow hides hanging the length of it, selling leather-wear, boots, mostly. We'd seen many herds of cattle and flocks of sheep, but the only kangaroos we noticed were road kill. In the 19th century this was a gold rush trail. A sign said Parkes, 67km, so we didn't have much further to go.

In the back of the car, to pass the time, I started a list of the Australian birds I have seen since arriving here:

Eddie washing the car at the Station Motel in Parkes
white cockatoo, black cockatoo (the rarer kind), brush turkey, herons (various), pelicans, gulls, swallows, Australian magpie, magpie lark, kookaburra, ibis, rainbow lorikeets, galahs, crows, myna birds, crested pigeons, regular pigeons, long legged lapwings, Apostle birds (that cluster in flocks of 12), fairy wrens, muskovy ducks ...

On the following day I spotted a pair of wild emus, too.

Parkes to Dubbo

The Dish at Parkes, from the visitors' centre
After spending the night at a nice motel in Parkes ("our holiday house" as Eddie called it--he meant the room; his granddad and I were in the next room, "in another one holiday house"), Chris and George set off to Parkes airport at the crack of dawn so that Chris could go flying over the plains and hills with George's friend Brett, in his ultralight, advanced sports 'plane. Both men enjoyed themselves mightily. While this was happening, George returned to pick up the rest of us, and drove us a short distance along the Henry Parkes Way to his frequent place of work, the radio telescope, commonly known as The Dish, which I shall write about in a separate blogpost.

Sha in the field of sunflowers
Abandoned cam-shaft at the Peak Hill goldmine
In the afternoon after our Dish tour, we resumed our journey along the Dubbo Road, 950 km from Brisbane, the road signs said. We stopped to take pictures in a field of sunflowers and ants. George told us to look out for willy-willies, but I saw none of those. We ate some more cherries and decided that we'd like to see the Peak Hill open cut goldmine, no longer in operation; it closed in 2001 but is still an impressive sight. They have left some of the old equipment lying around to rust, for atmosphere, and information plaques give some information about the original gold prospectors' village, the tents and shacks that sprang up at Peak Hill in the 1890s around the aptly named Struggle Street. One of the larger tin shacks served as their Memorial Hall.

Peak Hill proper, by the way, the largest of the hills in these parts, is apparently the highest elevation east of Africa!

Christmas decorations, Dubbo

Barefoot youths on Macquarie Street in Dubbo
Our destination on the 2nd day was Dubbo, the town one of our Australian friends calls the Paris of the Western Plains, being a relatively cultured place. All depends what you mean by culture, of course. Parkes' highlight of the year is the Elvis Festival which we missed by one week (it starts next weekend and I must admit it would have been fun to wave to Brett on the astronomers' float, dressed in his Elvis costume complete with sideburns; Brett lives in Parkes). Anyway, the theatre at Dubbo is currently advertising productions of The Marriage of Figaro, a stage adaptation of Wuthering Heights, and some symphony concerts.

By the Macquarie River at Dubbo
In Dubbo, we stayed at Cattleman's Motor Inn, which has a large bull on a pole out front, to distinguish it from the other lodgings. The street it's on lies parallel to the beautiful Macquarie River, edged with grassy banks and gum trees where kookaburras, fairy wrens, magpie larks and colourful parrots live; then on the other bank of the river is more grass, and, beyond it, the CBD, mostly on Macquarie Street, very similar to Clarinda Street, the main drag in Parkes, with its shady arcades, old fashioned clock tower, flowery roundabouts and quiet shops, including an excellent bookshop, The Book Connection. Dubbo has three bridges, one of which is the old railway bridge with goods trains trundling over it, to the delight of our little grandson.

Next morning, after a leisurely full breakfast for us all at Mr. Bean's Coffee Emporium in the centre of Dubbo, we drove to the nearby Taronga Zoo, a safari park, where they sell 2-day entrance tickets. You can camp there and wake up to the sight of roaming giraffes, if you wish. It had elands, elephants, lions, monkeys, otters (Eddie's favourites) and giant tortoises. It was a very hot, sunny day and Chris' nose peeled. I'm not sure if the black swan was one of the exhibits or not; it is an Australian species. We drove from one viewing station to another and there was no time left in the day for Dubbo's Botanical Gardens or "Traintasia" or Old Gaol museum or the Flying Doctor museum. We'll just have to go back.

Dubbo to Sydney

It was 195km from Dubbo to Merriwa, via Dunedoo and Uarby. Eddie slept for most of this leg, the road winding along near the Goulburn River National Park. We saw high hills ahead to the south and other, pointy ones to the north, the Goolah Tops. George liked driving under the "big sky" though the immediate scenery was same-ish. We crossed the Willy Wally Gully, Deep Creek and other gullies, mostly dry.

Merriwa's main street
At Merriwa
Merriwa, where we stopped for lunch, doesn't seem to have changed much since the mid twentieth century, the RSL Club just like English village halls used to be in my youth, with a stage at one end, a framed portrait of young Queen Elizabeth over it. The dining hall, adjacent, reminded me of the places where my parents used to order meat and two veg. and the visitors' Welcoming Centre (sic), where the toilets were labelled Ewes and Rams, was another barn-like hall, flags along the walls, had long trestle tables stacked with homemade knick knacks (crocheted doilies!) such as would have been for sale at a village fete in those days. But it was hotter than England ever used to be; the shops had arcades and the houses had shady verandahs. Eddie kept asking to see another Holiday House.

On the Golden Highway, approaching the Hunter Valley
Chris drove next, 150km through hilly country to the Hunter Valley, gradually becoming less wild and more prosperous-looking: horse breeding country and vineyards. Finally, I spotted a kangaroo in a field and George saw a mother kangaroo with young one, in among the vines. We stopped briefly at Jerry's Plains and and a service station near Cessnock, taking a short cut to avoid the busy roads round the city of Newcastle. We passed the airport where Chris and I landed in 2003 in a plane rented from Bankstown.

Our last drive of the day wound through the northern end of the Woollemi National Park, then we were on the Pacific Highway south, the M1, for the last 98km. Over Jigadee Creek, passing Toronto, Coorabong and Swansea on the way, and crossing the Hawkesbury River on a long bridge, we drove back home, through Epping, to Marsfield.