INTERFEROMETRY

12 Dec 2020

After driving for an hour on a straight flat road, we’re getting a better sense of the scale of our country. Coonabarabran to Narrabri is (straight) through the Pilliga Nature Reserve. Here too, the creeks were dry and the forest is recovering from bushfires. 

“There’s one” I said stating the obvious as a huge radio telescope filled the windscreen. The huge white dish pointing at the sky reminded me of sunflowers tracking the sun. 

Pulling into the car park we were greeted with a sobering sign “BEWARE OF SNAKES”. I’m not scared of snakes, but I’m not interested in meeting any either. 

“Listen…” said Dave standing still looking up at the huge dish. The mechanical hum and pulse emanating from the structure sounded to me like we’re communicating with aliens. “…sounds ethereal.”

With eyes on a swivel, we wandered into the visitor centre for the CSIRO’s Australian Telescope Compact Array. The home of five antennas mounted on rail tracks, and repositioned to compensate for the turning of the earth.  A sixth antenna is mounted 3 km away. The process of combining the signals is called ‘interferometry’.  

“It smells just like I expected it to: clean, air-conditioned…. intellectual” Dave said looking around the unmanned centre.

The information boards and models made for interesting reading about super massive blackholes, supernovae, our galaxy and radio waves. Learning about the universe always blows my mind. We are but microbes, on a speck of dust, in an infinite universe – put’s life into perspective. 

Outside, we wandered around the grounds (with an eye on foot placement) and marvelled at this huge feat of world-class  Australian engineering. 

“In another life, I’d like to work at a place like this!” Dave said stopping in his tracks, eyes sweeping around the facility, landing in the research centre to our right. “Being interested in the actual world, and our position in space – not just expressing my thoughts, kind of thing.”

Before the Compact Array telescopes, this used to be a Solar Observatory, and some of the disused structures are left rusting artfully in the bush. We pulled over to investigate these strange skeletons. 

Based in the country town of Narrabri for the night, we walked down to a newly renovated pub for dinner. The interiors were completely unexpected. This Pub would be comfortable popping up in The Rocks in Sydney.  Ordering the Chef’s Special and a cold beer from Great Northern Brewing Co, was the perfect end to an interesting day!

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