National Heritage List inscription date 10 August 2020
Parkes Observatory is a monument to Australian scientific and engineering achievement.
Built in 1961, the Observatory symbolises how important astronomy has been to Australian history. It also holds special associations with the Apollo 11 moon landing.
Astronomy is part of Australia’s cultural history. It has helped shape Australians’ understanding of the world around them. The building of Parkes Observatory in the 1950s and 60s recognises this.
"The Dish" was one of the first large single-dish radio telescopes in the world. Ongoing upgrades have ensured it continues to function as an important scientific tool.
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An engineering venture into the unknown
The invention of radio astronomy allowed us to interpret the cosmos in new ways. Space could be studied at radio frequencies that were previously inaccessible.
Post-World War II, Australia was an international leader in radio astronomy research. Australian scientists and engineers thought up and designed the Parkes radio telescope. Experts from around the world also had input. In the early 1950s the construction of large dishes for radiophysics was an entirely new exercise.
CSIRO used innovative engineering and technological solutions. Their scientists and engineers invented new tools and techniques to use. They used these to construct the largest single dish telescope dedicated to astronomy in the Southern hemisphere. It was one of the first of its kind.
The Parkes’ dish became a model internationally. Its design was used for astronomy and spacecraft tracking. It was used elsewhere in Australia, in Canada, Germany, the USA and Spain.
For the telescope to work, scientists and engineers at CSIRO developed a new mount and new guidance systems. This allowed for a large dish to be constructed in an era where dishes of such a size were pioneering technology.
CSIRO built a new type of guidance mechanism for the dish. It could be controlled with a higher accuracy than other single-dish telescopes of the time. The receivers could also detect radio waves at a wider range of frequencies and with more sensitivity than other telescopes. This helped progress radio astronomy into a more sophisticated level of research.
The high quality and number of scientific discoveries were made possible by the scientific and technical design excellence of the telescope.
Over time, the Parkes’ telescope has been updated. This was done in a way which is consistent with the continuity of its heritage significance as a leading scientific instrument.
The Observatory has been key to important global discoveries. These include establishing the Big Bang Theory and Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity.
Apollo 11 mission
The Parkes Observatory was part of a network of stations around the world during the Apollo 11 moon landing. The moon landing was watched by about 530 million people across the world. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped on the moon on 21 July 1969 (AEST). Soon after their first steps, NASA switched to the Parkes Observatory signal. It was the source of most of the two and a half hours of moonwalk footage.
Australians were part of the global community that watched the moon landing together. It represented humanity’s spirit of discovery and the peak of mid-twentieth century scientific and engineering endeavour.