Archive for April, 2010


As well as looking through either my Meade ETX-125 or my 8” Saxon or my astronomical binoculars, the next best thing is visiting telescope sites within Australia.  I also like visiting tracking stations as well – and there are so many of those, many operated by Nasa and the Australian government. I’ve been to most of those as well – my favourite site is Siding Springs, probably because it is largest facility in Australia (at the moment) and has numerous telescopes and additionally has played a key role in many projects. Here are the main ones, being both optical and radio telescopes and tracking stations:


Tidbinbilla is in a fairly remote national parks area about 30 minutes outside Canberra and a great place to visit, with a coffee shop overlooking the DDS-43 its quite impressive and there is a fairly good visitors centre – a must see.


  • DSS-34 is a 34 m dish utilising a wave guide to place the receiving and transmitting hardware underground rather than on top of the dish. It is the most recent antenna at CDSCC, being built in 1997.
  • DSS-43 is a 70 m dish constructed in 1976 and extended in 1987. It is the largest steerable parabolic antenna in the Southern Hemisphere.
  • DSS-45 is a 34 m dish built in 1986.
  • DSS-46 is a 26 m dish. It was moved in 1984 from Honeysuckle Creek, where it was built in 1967. It is scheduled to be decommissioned in late 2009.
  • DSS-49 is the designation of the 64 m dish at Parkes.

Tidbinbilla today – with the 70 meter DSS-43 to the left and the Honeysuckle Creek DSS-46 to the right.

Still an important NASA tracking station today. Its the biggest in Australia the DSS-43 but its difficult to see it.

Here is the DSS-46 – at Tidbinbilla – soon to become an exhibit when fully decommissioned:

The visitors centre is pretty good:

Mopra: (no visitors allowed)

I’ve yet to visit Mopra, just have to think of a good reason to get into the site!

Paul Wild Observatory and also tracking station: (a must see!)

A great place to go amidst the thousands of kangaroos. It’s in the middle of nowhere and its so remote there is basically no interference at all. There are 6 scopes each 22 meters in diameter and they track together, as an interferometer or some track separately while other collectively. It’s so remote that even the visitor’s centre is robotic! I loved visiting Narrabri tracking station (as it’s sometime called) technicians were working on the drive system of one scope when we were there. The visitors centre is situated right near the tracks, and there is a fence and its like waiting at a train station from the cosmos! A colleague of mine also installed the first tracking system at this site, Prof. Bob Betz and so it was interesting talking to him of the precision involved, the tracking system has since been upgraded twice to even finer tolerances.

Interestingly, I think it should be simply called the Wild Observatory as there is so much wild life on the site and round the site.

A great view at night if you can get inside!

Daytime and it looks like business as usual – Quasars, GRBs and what else is on the menu:

Its rare to see some many together – but here is 4 of the 6 clustered together:

Birds lined up for a show at Narrabri:

And one kangaroo stayed around for the photo shoot:

Parkes Observatory:

The site at Parkes Observatory is a great place to visit and has a first rate visitors centre. With a coffee shop and so you can sit and watch the telescope slowly track. Sadly there are no open days but that didn’t stop me from making a short film of the site. It was the largest radio telescope in Australia and boosts a 64 meter dish, but that has now been surpassed by Tidbinbilla DSS-43 which has been upgraded to 70 meters. The primary observing instrument is the second largest in the Southern Hemisphere, and one of the first large movable dishes in the world! Each year Parkes celebrates it’s role in Apollo 11, while not as significant as Honeysuckle Creek it was perhaps the next key instrument in the event.

Parkes is always fun and there is a great atmosphere in the visitors centre and there is always lots of visitors as well but this particular visitor is me!

That red door will give you some perspective of the size:

Parkes in infrared (its seems only fitting!)

Unfortunately there is no getting close to this scope unless you are authorised – even those birds cant get it:

Siding springs:

This is as good as it gets in Australia as far as telescopes go. A great remote location 8 hours drive from Sydney, I’ve been there many times. It has many great telescopes and a good visitors centre. But one day of the year they have an open day and you get to go inside all facilities and talk with operators – special guests are invited only into the control room of the Anglo-Australian Telescope, probably the most fameous telescope in Australia – even on open day it is difficult to get it. But yes you guessed it, I managed to get a guided tour and a chance to sit in the operators chair and discuss technical details of telescope operations. I recently talked with many Astronomers at the last open day in October 2009 and many very intesting, one of which was Dr. Robert McNaught, the discover of the McNaught comet.


  • 3.9 m Anglo-Australian Telescope (AAO)
  • 1.24 m UK Schmidt Telescope (AAO)
  • 2.0 m Faulkes Telescope South
  • 1.3 m SkyMapper Telescope (ANU)
  • 2.3 m Advanced Technology Telescope (ANU)
  • 0.5 m Uppsala Southern Schmidt Telescope
  • 0.5 m Automated Patrol Telescope (UNSW)
  • 0.45 m ROTSE IIIa, Robotic Optical Transit Search Experiment (UNSW)
  • Korean YSTAR Telescope (Korean Southern Observatory)
  • 40-inch Telescope (ANU – Decommissioned)
  • 24-inch Telescope (ANU – Decommissioned)
  • 16-inch Telescope (ANU – Decommissioned)

There is so much to see at Siding Springs:

The Anglo-Australian telescope:

Here is me at the telescope controls of the Anglo-Australian telescope:

UK Schmidt Telescope:

Aligning optical fibers on the imaging plate for the UK Schmidt Telescope: the alien thing is a nice touch.

a PhD student I spent some time talking with about her work on GRBs, she was on call as GRBs are unpredictable! She has been there 3 weeks and still hasnt got any usable data. Note to self – doing a PhD on GRBs could be tricky task!

Mount Stromlo Observatory:

Mount Stromlo Observatory is reported to be the oldest observatory, still operating, within Australia. There’s no doubt that the destruction of all the Mount Stromlo telescopes as a result of the 18 January 2003 bushfire is a major loss for Australian astronomy. To better appreciate the significance of this loss you may care to peruse Dr Wayne Orchiston’s article here:


Stromlo the way it was before:

Then came the bush fire of 2003: so sad:

As it looks today: Sky Mapper (but they are still rebuilding!)

SKA (Square Kilometre Array):

Just now Australia and South Africa are both poised to be selected (selection isn’t until 2012) for the SKA. We are of course hoping that Australia will be the site of the SKA and in particular a remote location in Western Australia where there is absolutely nothing except desert. The site has already be donated by the Western Australian Government and they have already built and tested the (ASKAP) telescope, an important precursor to the Square Kilometre Array, and have received signals from the first dish – see this page for details:

To see the ASKAP project and site, which now has a visitors centre as well go here:

I will be in Perth in June of 2010 and plan to visit the fledging beginnings of ASKAP as there is 50-50 chance it will grow into the most power radio interferometer there is by the year 2015.

Soon to be an important site:

Honeysuckle Creek:

But there is some history here as well, namely in the form of tracking stations as well. The very first images of Apollo 11, and Neil’s first steps were beams to the remote site at Honey Suckle Creek tracking station in the ACT, near Canberra on Monday, July 21, 1969. The DSS-46 is probably the most famous dish we have for the common person in the street as the moon walk changed the perception of normal day to day life. I visited Honey Suckle Creek site, which was decommissioned in December 1981 (it was opened by our then Prime Minister Harold Holt in 1967) – it’s a ghost site now, with just concrete foundations. The land is now an aboriginal national part. The DSS-46 dish was moved to Tidbinbilla in 1982 and has been operating since that time, but in January of this year, its final decommissioning has started. It’s sad to see it go out of the pages of history. Consequently I visit Tidbinbilla quite often.

Just as an aside, this site is covered in golden top (hallucinogenic) mushrooms, makes one wonder what else went on at Honeysuckle! Perhaps it should have been called ‘Golden Top Mushroom tracking station.’ I’ve never seen so many, there is nearly as many many mushrooms as there was kangaroos, and there were thousands of those cute furry creatures!

Here are some photos and tribute site:

Honeysuckle Creek in the day:

Honeysuckle Creek now, with me contemplating what it was like in the day, with the pole where the DSS-46 was.

Orroral Valley Tracking Station:

There is another ghost site (as I call it) and that’s the Orroral Valley Tracking Station it was part of NASA’s Spacecraft Tracking and Data Acquisition Network (STADAN), also just outside Canberra which is even more remote than Honeysuckle Creek. It too is a bare patch with the dish foundations still in place but little else. The station opened in 1965 and was decommissioned in December of 1985 and is now part of a national park. See more about here:

and also here:

and also:
An ariel view of the Orroral Valley Tracking Station site in the day:

Orroral Valley Tracking Station as it is today – a ghost site:

Other telescopes and tracking stations.

Here are some more sites:

See a list of Australia facilities here:

Also see a list of public facilities here: (some of which I’ve also visited.)

And if you are like me, when travelling overseas you may want to also visit other sites, always check when they have open days though – its a good tip from a seasoned visitor, and so here is a nice list to have:


The most significant aspects of all these telescopes and tracking station is their contribution to Astronomy and Cosmology and that is of primary importance but I haven’t delved into that aspect otherwise this short article would surely become a book! But just let me say, that historically Australian sites have greatly contributed to research more than many other countries, yet with newer bigger scopes internationally, many of our optical scopes are now simply used as spectrographs, while others are decommissioned and others converted to robotic observatories. Yet there is still hope for Australian Astronomy as Kevin Rudd’s government has assigned considerable funding to further physics and Astronomy facilities, including the SKA, and the future looks Stella for Australian Science.

One last tracking station that I would need government clearance to get into that I would love to see – you guessed it: Pine Gap. But it doenst matter for I know it has nothing to do with space or astronomy! I keep getting the feeling that someone is watching, even though its not cold outside.

Warmest Regards