The “dish” at Parkes NSW and the Apollo moon landings

June 13, 2008

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The Parkes Radio Telescope in springtime. Photo: John Sarkissian/CSIRO

Many people have seen the film “The Dish”, which is about the role of the Parkes Radio Telescope in receiving the first television signals as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the Moon on 21 July 1969. Who can forget the scene with cricket being played on top of the giant 64-metre diameter antenna? The film was not only hilariously funny, but historically fairly accurate. Much of the research in establishing what really happened at Parkes that day and what was transmitted worldwide was done by John Sarkissian, Operations Scientist at the Radio Telescope.

On Sunday 15 June 2008 John will give the Sunday afternoon talk at 2 pm at the Coles Theatre, Powerhouse Museum. This is a chance to find out what was true in the film and what was artistic licence. All welcome.

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Apollo feedhorn on display at Sydney Observatory, photo Nick Lomb

The abstract of the talk is below. Before then though I would like to mention that the Powerhouse Museum has in its collection the actual device that sat at the focus of the tripod structure on top of the telescope and collected the television signals from the Moon. It is on display at Sydney Observatory. Called a feed horn, it is designed to collect radio waves at the focus of the Parkes Redio telescope and to funnel them to a receiver. It is in the shape of three stepped cylinders. It was used on the Parkes Radio Telescope for all the Apollo missions except 14 & 15. It was placed on a 13-cm receiver. The receiver and the feed were installed very quickly at short notice for the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission.

Talk abstract:

The recent Australian film, The Dish, highlighted the role played by the Parkes Radio Telescope in tracking and communicating with the Apollo 11 mission. However, the events depicted in this film represent only a single snapshot of the role played by Parkes in the exploration of the Solar System by NASA.

As the fledgling Deep Space Network was being established in the early 1960’s, one of the world’s major radio telescope facilities was being built at Parkes, in western New South Wales, Australia. This 64-metre diameter dish, designed and operated by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), was well-suited for deep space tracking work: its design was in fact, the inspiration for the 64-metre dishes of the Deep Space Network. From Mariner 2 in 1962 to Huygens at Titan in 2005, the Parkes Radio Telescope has been contracted by NASA on many occasions to support interplanetary spacecraft. The highlight of the NASA support was its critical role in several of the Apollo lunar landing missions, especially Apollo’s 11 and 13. This talk will outline the role played by Parkes in these historic missions and its relationship with the stations in the Deep Space Network.

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