How I got to control the iconic Parkes telescope and look for pulsars

On the projector screen, blue blobs bobbed around the simulated sky, each one showing a pulsar which I could investigate.

While sitting in the Australian Space Discovery Centre in Adelaide, the iconic CSIRO Parkes radio telescope, Murriyang in regional New South Wales, 1000km east, is at my disposal. I don’t know if I’ve ever been more excited for an 8am seminar.

A program – run by CSIRO’s Robert Hollow and Dr George Hobbs allows high school students to manoeuvre the Parkes radio telescope to analyse pulsars.

“There’s a load of outreach projects for optical astronomy, but they’re normally, at night-time, and also, you choose your source and a robotic telescope takes a picture of it,” says Hobbs in the seminar.

“Whereas here, I think the thing that the students like the most is that pulsars are weird – they turn off and do things, and change.”

Each of us were sat one by one in front of a computer and I picked a well-known pulsar to look at. After just few mouse clicks and pressing ‘start’, we watched the 64-metre square telescope began to swing around towards my pulsar, eventually capturing the radio source in its sights.

There was a pulpable delight in the room of adults, and I felt like a real radio astronomer, although one very much still learning the ropes.

As we spoke, data was collected in real time, and after just a few minutes you could see the sharp uptick on the graph, a tell-tale sign of a pulsar.

A pulsar – or a pulsating radio source – is a rotating neutron star which emits regular beams of radiation. These beams work a little bit like a lighthouse, but emit radio waves instead of light, and can be captured in real time by the Parkes telescope.

Some of these pulsars are so regular, that Hobbs and his team have been studying them consistently for decades. 

But like most radio telescopes, there’s also the growing issue of interference. This is one of the topics that the program discusses. At 8:30 for instance – when the visitor centre opened – we could see a spike in the amount of mobile phone interference. That is despite the centre asking visitors to turn off their phones.

Hollow also showed us a version of the sky where satellites are highlighted instead of pulsars. A few nights before he’d taken a photo where a trail of Starlink satellites had taken up the sky.

And up next after our session? The telescope was being used by Breakthrough Listen to try and find aliens.

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Hollow showing the trail of Starlink satellites at the Australian Space Discovery Centre. Credit: Jacinta Bowler

The two don’t shy away from the complex nature of astronomy.

“Sooner or later, somebody will ask something and we have to say ‘we don’t know’,” says Hollow.

“And that’s a really powerful moment – I’ve seen a kid’s jaw drop, asking ‘what do you mean you don’t know?’”

You can request the PULSE@Parkes project comes to your school here.

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