Parkes Observatory

Parkes Observatory

Parkes Observatory
The Parkes Observatory in New South Wales, Australia
Organization Australia Telescope National Facility
Location Parkes, New South Wales, Australia
Established 31 October 1961
Parkes Radio Telescope 64m movable radio dish
The Parkes radio telescope can tilt 60° from vertical and would take 15 minutes to perform a 360° rotation.

The Parkes Observatory (also known informally as "The Dish") is a radio telescope observatory, located 20 kilometres north of the town of Parkes, New South Wales, Australia. It was one of several radio antennas used to receive live, televised images of the Apollo 11 moon landing on 20 July 1969. Its scientific contributions over the decades led the ABC to describe it as "the most successful scientific instrument ever built in Australia"[1] after 40 years of operation.

The Parkes Observatory is run by the CSIRO as part of the Australia Telescope National Facility (ATNF) network of radio telescopes. It is frequently operated together with other CSIRO radio telescopes, principally the array of six 22-metre (72 ft) dishes at the Australia Telescope Compact Array near Narrabri, and a single 22-metre (72 ft) dish at Mopra (near Coonabarabran), to form a very long baseline interferometry array.


  • Parkes Observatory Visitors Centre 1
  • Radio telescope 2
  • Hardware 3
  • Receivers 4
  • Historical non-astronomy research 5
    • Apollo 11 broadcast 5.1
    • Mars rovers 5.2
  • Astronomy research timeline 6
  • In Popular Culture 7
  • Relation to Breakthrough Listen 8
  • See also 9
  • References 10
  • External links 11

Parkes Observatory Visitors Centre

The Parkes Observatory Visitors Centre allows visitors to view the dish as it moves. There are exhibits about the history of the telescope, astronomy and space science, and a 3-D movie theatre.

Radio telescope

The Parkes 64m Radio Telescope "The Dish" at full extension to the ground.

The Parkes Radio Telescope, completed in 1961, was the brainchild of Carnegie Corporation and the Rockefeller Foundation to fund half the cost of the telescope. It was this recognition and key financial support from the US that persuaded then Prime Minister Robert Menzies to agree to fund the rest of the project.[2]


The primary observing instrument is the 64-metre (210 ft) movable dish telescope, second largest in the Southern Hemisphere, and one of the first large movable dishes in the world (DSS-43 'Deep Space Station'-43 at Tidbinbilla was extended from 64-metre (210 ft) to 70-metre (230 ft) in 1987, surpassing Parkes).[3] After its completion it has operated almost continuously to the present day. The dish surface was physically upgraded by adding smooth metal plates to the central part to provide focusing capability for centimetre and millimetre length microwaves. The outer part of the dish remains a fine metal mesh, creating its distinctive two-tone appearance.

The 18-metre (59 ft) dish antenna was transferred from the Fleurs Observatory (Mills Cross) in 1963. Mounted on rails and powered by a tractor engine to allow the distance between it and the main dish to be easily varied, it was used as an interferometer with the main dish, and as a transmit uplink antenna in the Apollo program. It has been abandoned since the early 1980s.

The telescope has an altazimuth mount. It is guided by a small mock-telescope placed within the structure at the same rotational axes as the dish, but with an equatorial mount. The two are dynamically locked when tracking an astronomical object by a laser guiding system. This primary-secondary approach was designed by Barnes Wallis.

The success of the Parkes telescope led NASA to copy the basic design in their Deep Space Network, with matching 64 m dishes built at Goldstone, California, Madrid, Spain, and Tidbinbilla, Australia.

In 1998 Parkes telescope began detecting fast radio bursts and related signals named perytons. At the time it was theorised that these may have been a signals from another galaxy, emissions from neutron stars becoming black holes or interference from lightning strikes.[4][5][6][7] In 2015 it was determined that perytons were caused by staff members opening the door of the facilities microwave oven during its cycle.[8][9][10] When the microwave oven door was opened, 1.4 GHz microwaves from the magnetron shutdown phase were able to escape.[11] ″Subsequent tests revealed that a peryton can be generated at 1.4 GHz when a microwave oven door is opened prematurely and the telescope is at an appropriate relative angle″.[12] ″It is still not clear if microwave ovens can be blamed for all instances of peryton reception″.[13]


The receiving cabin is located at the focus of the parabolic dish, supported by three struts 27-metre (89 ft) above the dish. The cabin contains multiple radio and microwave detectors, which can be switched into the focus beam for different science observations.

The observatory is a part of the Australia Telescope National Facility network of radio telescopes. The 64m dish is frequently operated together with the Australia Telescope Compact Array at Narrabri and a single dish at Mopra, to form a very long baseline interferometry array.

Historical non-astronomy research

During the Apollo missions to the moon, the Parkes Observatory was used to relay communication and telemetry signals to NASA, providing coverage for when the moon was on the Australian side of the Earth.[14]

The telescope also played a role in relaying data from the NASA Galileo mission to Jupiter that required radio-telescope support due to the use of its backup telemetry subsystem as the principal means to relay science data.

The big dish

The observatory has remained involved in tracking numerous space missions up to the present day, including

The CSIRO has made several documentaries on this observatory, with some of these documentaries being posted to YouTube.[2]

Apollo 11 broadcast

ABC news report on the role of the Parkes telescope and the Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station, a week before the moon landing.

When Buzz Aldrin switched on the TV camera on the Lunar Module, three tracking antennas received the signals simultaneously. They were the 64 metre Goldstone antenna in California, the 26 metre antenna at Honeysuckle Creek near Canberra in Australia, and the 64 metre dish at Parkes.

In the first few minutes of the broadcast, NASA alternated between the signals being received from its two stations at Goldstone and Honeysuckle Creek, searching for the best quality picture.

A little under nine minutes into the broadcast, the TV was switched to the Parkes signal. The quality of the TV pictures from Parkes was so superior that NASA stayed with Parkes as the source of the TV for the remainder of the 2.5 hour broadcast. For a comprehensive explanation of the TV reception of the Apollo 11 broadcast, see "The Television Broadcasts" from the report "On Eagles Wings".

On Monday, 31 October 2011, Google replaced its logo with a Google Doodle in honor of Parkes Observatory's 50th Anniversary.[15] It was only visible on Google in Australia.

Celebrations on 19 July 2009 to mark the 40th anniversary of the moon landing, and Parkes' role in it. "The Dish" behind is at full extension to the ground.

Mars rovers

In 2012 the Observatory received special signals from the Mars rover Opportunity (MER-B), to simulate the Curiosity rover UHF radio.[16] This helped prepare for the then upcoming Curiosity (MSL) landing in early August—it successfully touched down on 6 August 2012.[16]

Astronomy research timeline


  • Built 1961 and was fully operational by 1963.
  • Support for the NASA Apollo Missions in late 1960s.


  • Receiver upgrades and detailed observations begin.


  • Upgrade to 64m from previously smaller aperture.


  • Between 1997 and 2002 it conducted the HIPASS neutral hydrogen survey, the largest blind survey for galaxies in the neutral hydrogen line to date.


  • More than half of currently known pulsars were discovered by the Parkes Observatory.
  • Vital component of the Parkes Pulsar Timing Array programme to detect gravity waves as part of the broader International Pulsar Timing Array (IPTA).

In Popular Culture

  • The observatory and telescope were featured in the 2000 film The Dish, a fictionalised account of the observatory's involvement with the Apollo 11 moon landing.
  • The telescope is featured on the cover of Steve Hillage's 1977 album Motivation Radio.

Relation to Breakthrough Listen

The telescope will be used to search for radio waves in the 1-10 GHz range, a quiet zone uninterrupted by man-made or natural sources for the heavily funded project, Breakthrough Listen.[17][18]

See also


  1. ^ Robertson, Peter (9 February 2010). "40 Years of The Dish". ABC Science.  
  2. ^ "40 Years of The Dish". 
  3. ^ Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex - exploring the Solar System and beyond
  4. ^ "Strange 'outer space' signal that baffled Australian scientists turns out to be microwave oven". 5 May 2015. 
  5. ^ Monica Tan. "Microwave oven to blame for mystery signal that left astronomers stumped". the Guardian. 
  6. ^ Yoni Heisler. "Parkes Telescope’s mysterious radio signals didn’t come from aliens, but from a microwave - BGR". BGR. 
  7. ^ George, Honey (6 May 2015). "Parkes Telescope Scientists Found That The Outer Space Signals Were Not From Aliens But From Their Microwave Oven". International Business Times. Retrieved 7 May 2015. 
  8. ^ "Parkes telescope scientists discover 'strange signals' from kitchen microwave". ABC News. 
  9. ^ "Microwave oven baffled astronomers for decades". Wired UK. 
  10. ^ "Parkes telescope scientists discover strange 'space signals' actually came from kitchen microwave". 
  11. ^ "Astronomy mystery solved: They're space pings, but not as we know them". The Sydney Morning Herald. 
  12. ^ "[1504.02165] Identifying the source of perytons at the Parkes radio telescope". 
  13. ^ Bob Yirka (Apr 13, 2015). "Mystery of peryton reception at Australian observatory solved: It's from microwave ovens". Archived from the original on 2015-06-08. 
  14. ^ "On Eagle's Wings: The Story of the Parkes Apollo 11 Support". 
  15. ^ "Google Doodle Celebrates Parkes Observatory". 31 Oct 2011. Retrieved 13 November 2011. 
  16. ^ a b "Mars Exploration Rover Mission: All Opportunity Updates". 
  17. ^ Zhang, Sarah (20 July 2015). "A Russian Tycoon Is Spending $100 Million to Hunt for Aliens". WIRED. 
  18. ^ "Stephen Hawking’s $135m search for alien life: Parkes telescope in NSW to lead way". NewsComAu. 12 August 2015. 

External links

  • Parkes Observatory Home Page
  • Parkes Observatory Visitors Centre
  • The dish and the great beyond
  • ABC Science, 2001: 40 years of the Dish
  • View the dish in action
  • The Dish at the Internet Movie Database
  • Observation of Mariner IV with the Parkes 210-ft Radio Telescope
  • The sound of the Universe singing - ABC Radio National radio documentary on the story of 'the dish' since its construction
  • Parkes Pulsar Timing Array