Cosmic Conjunctions @ Parkes

Parkes in January: you either love it or loathe! All depends on how you feel about the singer once dubbed ‘the greatest star in the world’, or how much you depend on the millions of dollars his eponymous festival pumps into to this small rural town’s economy.

CSIRO’s Parkes Observatory float in the 2014 Elvis Street Parade in the town of Parkes. Credit: Merrill Findlay, 11 January 2014.

Because in January, even when inland temperatures soar to over 40˚C (104˚F), Parkes is invaded by hordes of Elvis fans in dirndl skirts, jumpsuits, big hair dos and retro-bling. For many of these visitors, the Parkes Elvis Festival has become an annual pilgrimage; for others, a once-only must-do curiosity. Amy was in the latter group. She’d driven from the coast to meet up with fellow photographers and tick off not one but two must-dos on her bucket list: the Elvis Festival and the Parkes Observatory.

I met some of the visiting photographers at a night sky viewing and barbecue hosted by the Central West Astronomical Society (CWAS) in a paddock near the rural village of Cookamidgera.

Canon Collective photographers being introduced to astronomy by John Sarkissian (in the hat mid-left) at the Cookamidgera site while waiting for the sun to set. Also present are a couple of the CWAS hosts, Eileen and Christine (far left front row). Credit: Merrill Findlay, 8 January 2016.

Amy must have been out partying that night, or watching American tribute artist Donny Edwards channelling Elvis at the Parkes Leagues Club. We had more than enough stars at Cookamidgera without Elvis though. Gerry, a Sydney photographer, was especially impressed. ‘I found it really amazing that the sky is so clear and so many stars that you couldn’t imagine there could be,’ he said.

Gerry had grown up in urban Malaysia where Orion’s Belt was one of the few asterisms visible to the naked eye. ‘You think that’s the only thing that’s in the sky until you come here and find out that [Orion is] just one of many, many millions of [star groups].’

The CWAS night viewing site at Cookamidgera, 8 January 2016. Credit: Tony Trelford, CWAS.

Mira from Brisbane was blown out by what she called ‘the depth’ of the stars visible from Cookamidgera, and the difference between what she could see with and without her camera. ‘Like the Milky Way, when we look at the sky we just see like a little trail, but in the camera … it was like there were heaps and heaps of stars and there was even a variation in the colour which was also very beautiful,’ she enthused. This was her first attempt at astro-photography. ‘I was so impressed with myself,’ she said. ‘I’m sure I’ve got a lot to learn, but it was a great starting point. It has developed an interest for me, actually, in astronomy …’

I met up again with Gerry, Mira, and the other Canon photographers at the Parkes Observatory before dawn the following Sunday. They wanted to catch the first rays of the sun illuminating the radio telescope. I was more interested in the conjunction of Venus and Saturn though because, from the Visitors Centre lawn, these two planets were so close to the telescope they could almost have waltzed around its rim. I clicked twice and went looking for a better angle, but then a mechanical whir in the darkness and the dish began to move. Oh no, no, please don’t … But it did. And Saturn and Venus were imprisoned behind the mesh of a great parabolic reflector!

The conjunction of Saturn and Venus just visible in the dawn sky to the right of the Parkes Observatory. Credit: Merrill Findlay. Taken before the dish moved with my very amateur little Pentax X5 on Auto and without a tripod!

So who was sabotaging my efforts to record this planetary conjunction at the dish’s lip, and why? I’ll tell you soon enough, even introduce you to the culprit, who, I’ve since learned, was driving this iconic instrument with his laptop from his Mum’s kitchen table in Warsaw! But first, let’s get to know Amy and her fellow photographers a little better.

Canon Collective photographers at The Dish post-sunrise, Sunday 10 January 2016. Credit: Merrill Findlay.

Amy was conspicuous that morning, the only photographer in pearls and black lace before sunrise! She’d dressed for her next gig, she explained, which, judging from her frock, must have been either a rock’n roll fling around a dance floor or a champagne breakfast with someone nice. (Or both.) She’d ‘done everything’ at the Elvis Festival, she boasted. Even sung Bosa Nova Baby solo at the Poets’ Breakfast because no-one else knew the words! Ever since, people had been stopping her in the main street saying ‘I remember you, you’re the girl who …’

But, for Amy, the Festival’s highlight was not the rockabilly rock’n roll nostalgia, nor the street parade dress-ups, nor even Donny Edwards at the Leagues Club. It was this place, the Parkes Observatory. Because Amy wanted to be a professional astronomer and had just completed her first year of a physics degree as a step towards this goal. Her Plan B, for in case the maths beat her, was to become an astro-science communicator to inspire others to look up to the sky and be amazed.

Amy, the aspiring astrophysicist (and/or science communicator), at the control board inside the Observatory’s tower. Credit: Merrill Findlay, 10 January 2016.

Amy herself had been interested in astronomy for as long as she could remember. Yet, when she left school, studying it hadn’t seemed an option. ‘I don’t have enough nerds in my life!’ she quipped to explain why she hadn’t gone to uni earlier. Instead, she got a job with a fast food franchise and stayed …. until, one day, five years later, she’d simply had enough! She went home and spent the night applying for jobs. Any job anywhere. She eventually accepted an offer of a housekeeping position at an eco-lodge on Tasmania’s isolated Freycinet Peninsula.

For some reason she didn’t take her telescope to Tasmania, and regretted it as soon as she saw the unpolluted night sky in all its southern glory. She went shopping, busted her budget, and spent her free nights stargazing with a friend from the end of the local jetty: two millennials tripping the light fantastic along the Milky Way from a remote promontory on a small green island on a small blue planet orbiting a small sun in a minor spur of just one of a hundred thousand galaxies in the cosmic supercluster we now know as Laniakea, in our own ever-expanding universe.

And then, one day someone asked a simple question: ‘Why don’t you study astronomy if you love it so much?’

Sometimes that’s all it takes ….

Astronomy made her feel connected to all to the universe, Amy told me over breakfast at The Dish cafe later that morning. Because, in her cosmology, the very elements we are made of have been cooked in the bellies of the stars she gazes at through her telescope. As one of the great science communicators of the twentieth century, Carl Sagan, famously told us, ‘We are made of star stuff.’ Or ‘star dust’, as one of his successors, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, calls it. For Amy, as for many of us, this is both a scientific and a spiritual truth, and deeply comforting in the most inclusive way possible.

The eastern horizon was glowing now. Magpies were chortling, apostle birds and choughs were stalking the lawn in search of seeds and bugs for breakfast, and a mob of gallahs was noisily preparing to land on the dish’s rim. ‘Four minutes to sunrise,’ John Sarkissian, the Observatory’s Operations Scientist and CWAS member, announced, and began the countdown. The photographers positioned themselves behind their tripods and checked their camera settings. Three minutes, two minutes, one, give it an extra minute to climb Hervey Range—and then the burst of golden light.

Visiting photographers catching the sunrise with CWAS’s John Sarkissian (second from right), Sunday 10 January. Credit: Merrill Findlay.

As if all these conjunctions weren’t enough for a single Sunday morning —Elvis, Venus, Saturn, those millisecond pulsars, and the rising sun—another event of cosmic consequence, at least to some of us, was occurring that day: David Bowie was dying. The Starman, who had inspired millions to think beyond the banalities of our everyday lives on Planet Earth and dare to be different. (He also happened to be married to the woman who played the cigar-smoking chameloid, Martia, in Star Trek VI: Iman Mohamed Abdulmajid. Another cosmic conjunction but too much of a digression for this story!)

At the Parkes Observatorye we didn’t know of Bowie’s passing yet, so, instead of sorrowing, as some of us would do later that day, we milled around Laurie Crawley’s optical ‘scope to witness Venus in her gibbous phase (or Viva Las Vegas, as this planet was renamed for the Elvis Festival) through the radio telescope’s dish. For at least one visitor, Kirsty Bede, Canon Australia’s national consumer experience manager and the person responsible for bringing the city photographers to Parkes, seeing Venus that morning, and listening to Laurie and John talking about the cosmos with such passion, was the highlight of her entire Elvis Festival! Astronomy can do that to people: it can induce far greater awe, wonder, fascination, curiosity and delight than the musical charisma of a dead mega-star ever can!

Amy at the annual Friends of The Dish public sky viewing on the lawn of Parkes Observatory’s Visitors Centre. This Elvis Festival event was co-hosted by CWAS members Laurie Crawley, Denis Crute, Christine Speers, Bernadette Aiken, Peter Cannon and John Sarkissian. More than 2,000 people visited the telescope that day, many of whom also saw ‘Viva Las Venus’ (aka Planet Venus), ‘Elvis Centauri’ (Alpha Centauri) and ‘A Hunk of Burning Love’ (the Sun) up close for the first time.  Credit: Merrill Findlay, 10 January 2016.

The city folk headed home after Viva Las Venus, all except Amy, our aspiring astrophysicist, who wanted to look inside the Observatory’s tower, something she’d dreamed of doing since first seeing the Australian comedy The Dish. John Sarkissian offered her a personalised tour while we waited for the Centre’s café to open for breakfast, and I tagged along.

Amy with the poster promoting her favourite film inside the Parkes Observatory’s admin. building. Credit: Merrill Findlay, 10 January 2016.

John has shown thousands of visitors through the tower, but rarely, I suspect, has his spiel been interrupted so many times for photos. Amy needed a digital memory of herself in every setting used in The Dish for her social media accounts: Amy gazing across Coobang Valley from the azimuth track loggia, Amy in the observation room, Amy at a CSIRO computer, Amy at the control board, Amy in the kitchen, Amy on John Bolton Avenue, as the tree-lined road the film’s characters used is now called … In this, she was a typical Millennial!

But the most famous setting of all, the great parabolic reflector on which the film’s characters play their game of cricket, was off-limits. Why? Because Stefan Oslowski, that young astrophysicist who sabotaged my shot of Venus and Saturn, was monitoring an array of millisecond pulsars, or neutron stars, with his laptop on his Mum’s kitchen table in Warsaw! He and his colleagues were using this array of pulsars to try to detect evidence of gravitational waves from colliding supermassive black holes millions of light years away. We saw some of his data on the CSIRO computer in the tower, including, as Stefan told me later, the pulse-profile of one of the millisecond pulsars he was observing.

Pulse profile of PSR  J1603-7202, one of the pulsars Stefan Oslowski was monitoring over the Elvis Festival weekend, as it appeared on the computer screen in the Parkes Observatory tower. This pulsar spins at the rate of 67 times a second, with a time interval between each pulse (its period), of just 0.0148419520154668 seconds. Its period is also remarkably stable, increasing by just 0.0000005 seconds every million years. See CSIRO’s Introduction to Pulsars for more. Photo credit: Merrill Findlay, 10 January 2016.

Millisecond pulsars, neutron stars, supermassive black holes, gravitational waves … these descriptors slip so lightly from astrophysicists’ tongues, but the cosmic forces they signify, the magnitude of their existence, are so mind-bogglingly extreme, so absolutely beyond human lived experience, and so unimaginably far away that, for most of us, they remain incomprehensible abstractions. As a non-scientist, I really struggle to get my head around even the most basic of concepts astrophysicists blithely toss around in their professional lives.

So I googled Dr Oslowski, found some of his scientific publications, and emailed him at work with an invitation to explain what he was doing with the Parkes Observatory on that Elvis weekend, and why. We connected by Skype the following week, he from in his office in Germany’s North Rhine-Wesphalia, and me from my office in Forbes, a small country town near Parkes.

Stefan Oslowski as he appeared on my ipad during our Skype conversation.  Credit: Merrill Findlay, 26 January, 2016.

Stefan is one of the ‘nerds’ Amy needed in her youth to nudge her towards university rather than a job at Subway when she left school! He was born and raised in Poland and has spent most of his life in Europe. He did his PhD at Swinburne University of Technology’s Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing, in Melbourne though. He is now the Humboldt Research Fellow at Bielefeld University’s Physics Faculty, and a guest post-doctoral researcher at Max-Planck-Institute for Radio Astronomy. A very impressive career trajectory for a young scientist.

Stefan visited the Parkes Observatory every six weeks or so throughout his PhD candidature to monitor the Parkes Pulsar Timing Array (PPTA), a project led by one of his supervisors, George Hobbs. He also conducted his own research at Parkes on the pulsar PSR J0437-4715, the brightest millisecon pulsar in the sky, and, at some 509.8 light years from Earth, the closest. He retains his links with the PPTA, and has many fond memories of his time at the Observatory and the observers’ lodge where he generally stayed. ‘It was exotic for me to go and see the Australian bush; for me that was quite nice,’ he told  me. He especially liked the kangaroos! ‘The farmers would try to get rid of kangaroos from their property and then the kangaroos would just come to us. So very often there was lots of kangaroos. It was all very interesting to see.’

Like many other visiting astronomers, Stefan sometimes felt very isolated at the Observatory, however, notwithstanding the collegiality he experienced with other astronomers and support staff and his direct video link with Swinburne University. For a city lad who had grown up with all the cultural sophistications of Central Europe, there really wasn’t much to do in inland rural New South Wales between his 12 hour observation shifts – except read, sleep, visit The Dish café for coffee or something stronger, and/or watch the kangaroos! He recalled one Christmas, for example, when all the support staff were at home with their families and he and his colleague were the only two people on-site. A very lonely time.

Yet, having to be physically at the Observatory was also advantageous in many ways. For Stefan it meant, for example, that he was able to learn many practical skills about operating radio telescopes from more experienced astrophysicists and support staff. Such opportunities are rarely available to young astronomers now that CSIRO’s telescopes are remotely ‘driven’.

ATNF_VelaSupernovaRemnant_ATCA21cmContinuumImage_by DBock, RSault, AGreen & DMilne
What do supernovae and pulsars look like optically? This photo shows the supernova remnant in the constellation Vela, and emissions created by ‘winds’ from the Vela pulsar PSR B8033-45 at its centre. Credits: Australia Telescope Compact Array 21 cm continuum image by D. Bock, R.Sault, A.Green and D. Milne. Courtesy CSIRO’s ATNF radio image archive.

Pulsars, the objects Stefan observes with the Parkes telescope, are the corpses of stars which have exploded as supernovae. They are remarkably dense and very small: ‘only 20 kilometres in diameter, the size of a city, but … heavier than our sun,’ Stefan explained. They also spin at seemingly impossibly fast rates like the blade of a kitchen blender, and emit a constant stream of electro-magnetic radiation from their magnetic poles.

With every rotation, these beams sweep across our planet like search lights. They are so regular that, when the first pulsar was discovered in 1967 by Jocelyn Bell (now Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell), a graduate student at Cambridge University’s Interplanetary Scintillation Array at the time, it was nick-named LGM-1, for Little Green Men. Because, as Jocelyn Bell and her colleagues half-seriously joked, its astonishingly regular pulses could have been an attempt by extra-terrestrials to communicate with other intelligent beings in the universe. LGM-1 is now more prosaically known as CP 1919 or PSR B1919+21.You can listen to it here.

The detection of this first pulsar was announced in the science journal Nature in February 1968, and has since been described as ‘the greatest astronomical discovery of the twentieth century’. In one of science’s many gender scandals, however, it was Jocelyn Bell’s male PhD supervisor, Antony Hewish, who shared the 1974 Nobel Prize for Physics for what the Nobel Foundation called ‘his decisive role in the discovery of pulsars’. Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s name was not mentioned. You can read her own entertaining account of her discovery here.

Telescope ‘driver’ Dennis Gill in Parkes Observatory’s old control room around the time the first pulsars were detected in 1968. Dennis was also one of two drivers controlling the telescope during the Apollo 11 mission the following year. This image is pinned to a notice board in the tower as a material memory of the telescope’s past. Credits: Original photographer unknown. This image by Merrill Findlay, 10 January 2016.

In 1968 PSR B 1919 also became the first pulsar detected with the Parkes radio telescope. Bill Butler, the dish’s ‘driver’ at the time, recalled that  Brian Cooper remained on duty after his colleagues knocked off, and was ‘wandering around- as he usually did, muttering and kicking things, twisting knobs etc. and he saw it—the first pulsar observation at Parkes.’

I read this description over the phone to Brian’s daughter, Sue, who happens to be an old friend of mine. ‘That’d be right!’ she laughed. Her dad passed away in 1999, but she could well imagine him ‘muttering and kicking things’ and ‘twisting knobs’ in his determination to pick up PSR B1919’s faint signal!

Since then, more than half of all known pulsars have been discovered from the Parkes Observatory, including J0437-4715, the binary millisecond pulsar Stefan Oslowski researched for his doctoral dissertation. Between 1997 and 2003, for example, data from the Parkes Multibeam Pulsar Survey of the southern sky revealed 760 new pulsars amongst the 1,015 it identified, including a completely new class of pulsars now known as Rotating Radio Transients, or RRATs.

As the accompanying graph comparing pulsar discoveries around the world shows, Parkes Observatory’s contribution to this field of astronomy cannot be underestimated. Unfortunately pulsar research doesn’t carry the same media charisma as astronauts and moon landings though, so it is the telescope’s role in the 1969 Apollo 11 mission that has captured people’s imagination rather than the more scientifically significant achievements that astrophysicists have made with this remarkable instrument.

CSIRO ATNF Pulsar survey Parkes
Plot of pulsar discoveries by year for Parkes Observatory and the rest of the world. Blue represents the Parkes discoveries. Source: ATNF Pulsar Catalogue (C1:53), R.N.Manchester, Pulsar Group, CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science,

The PPTA team has been monitoring its array of millisecond pulsars every few weeks for more than a decade now to detect direct evidence of gravitational waves. So far this evidence has eluded them. But Stefan and his PPTA colleagues remain confident that, as their methods become more and more sensitive, they will find what they were looking for.

‘We believe that when two galaxies collide and merge, then the supermassive black holes at the cores of the galaxies will start orbiting one another … and basically, as they get close enough to one another … they start emitting gravitational waves …, as predicted by Einstein and many other theorists of gravity,’ he explained during our Skype conversation. ‘These are the gravitational waves we’re trying to detect.’

Many rumours were circulating on social media and in the press at that time about a possible detection of these ripples in the fabric of space-time by a completely different kind of telescope, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory, or LIGO, in the US. So were Stefan and his pulsar colleagues feeling pressured by this competition, I asked.

‘I guess they have a much higher chance than we do to be the first ones,’ Stefan admitted. The Advanced LIGO experiment was very different yet complementary to what the PPTA collaborators and other pulsar timing array teams were trying to do though. ‘So while it would be nice to be the first ones …, even if they detect something and we haven’t detected anything yet, we’re certainly not going to stop, because we have different objectives with our experiment,’ he said. ‘I will be very cautious about saying whether we’ll detect anything this year, but if we do, then that’s fantastic!’

Those rumours persisted. Had LIGO truly detected a gravitational wave? I waited. And then finally, a month after that Elvis sunrise at the Parkes Observatory, the rumours were confirmed: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we have detected gravitational waves,’ LIGO’s executive director David Reitze told the world. ‘We did it!

This extraordinary achievement was brought to fulfillment over many years of research and development by the collaborative effort of more than 1,000 scientists in 16 different countries, including Australia. Together, they detected a ripple from the merger of two supermassive black holes more than a billion light years away with a couple of four kilometre pipelines, two highly polished mirrors, some exquisite science and engineering, some very serious computer kit, and lots of financial support. Their work has given birth to a radically new kind of astronomy, and revolutionary new ways of understanding our universe.

I contacted Stefan again after this historic announcement. He seemed exhilarated by it.  ‘The direct detection of gravitational waves by the Advanced LIGO is a magnificent achievement, opening a completely new window on the Universe,’ he told me by email. ‘We will now be able to see many parts of the Universe that were hidden so far from us. Many results in fundamental physics based on this and next detections by LIGO should follow.’

And as for his own work with pulsars? ‘I think the field of gravitational wave astronomy will be strongly invigorated due to this first detection, regardless of the type of experiment involved,’ he said. ‘We will continue working to get the first detection of gravitational waves from supermassive black holes using pulsar timing arrays and look forward to a space-borne laser interferometer, eLISA, which will probe yet another part of the brand new window on the Universe.’

But what will all this mean for the Parkes Observatory and its pulsar timing array project? What will it mean for Stefan himself, and other young astrophysicists who are at the beginnings of their careers in pulsar science? And for Amy,  who, I expect, has now commenced the second year of her undergraduate degree in physics with big dreams of becoming an astrophysicist herself? What will this discovery mean for them?

Oh to be a twenty-something at a time such as this! Imagine!

Frank and Ernest on a wall inside the control room of the Parkes Observatory tower! Can anyone tell us who cut it out of the newspaper and stuck it on the wall, and when? Credit: Merrill Findlay, 10 January 2016.


Page created January 2016. Content published 16 February 2016. Revised 17 February 2016, after John Sarkissian told me the name of the person in the historic photo of the Observatory’s old control room, and identified the pulse profile in one of the photos. Thank you John. Revised again 18 February 2016 after Stefan Oslowski got back to me with his comments on the Advanced LIGO announcement, which I have now inserted. Stefan also asked me to make a few minor corrections about his own work and the nature of pulsars. Thank you Stefan. Revised again 19 February with a few very minor aesthetic changes, and again on 23 February and 4 March to address concerns Amy had about her biographical details. Touched up again on 7 January 2017.



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