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Parkes Radio Telescope

by Apr 29, 2017

parkes radio telescope family photoWe intended to do a quick pit-stop at the Parkes Radio Telescope as part of our journey south to Canberra. I remembered it from my own youth as a giant metal dish in the middle of nowhere with not a lot else going for it (though I do distinctly remember buying my first “real” book about astronomy there!). To my surprise, we ended up spending more than an hour exploring the information centre, taking photos of the radio telescope and generally learning more about both the telescope and the role that the CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) has played in making the world a better place! This is definitely worth a visit for kids interested in space exploration.

Historical Significance of the Parkes Radio Telescope

Made famous in the film “The Dish”, the CSIRO Parkes Observatory, as it is officially known, was instrumental in the Apollo 11 moon landing. Without an array of telescopes like this one around the world NASA would not have been able to track and communicate with Apollo 11. In fact, the signal from the Parkes telescope was so good that it was used to broadcast the actual moon landing!

Fun at The Dish

“The Dish” is just north of Parkes in central western New South Wales. It is a working scientific installation and while you cannot actually go inside the radio telescope, there are plenty of great photo opportunities.

astrokids scavenger hunt activity bookThe information centre is a modern building with a small theatre room and cafe. While it is not a large building there are a number of hands-on activities for the kids. Even better, they have a scavenger program called Astro Kids that encourages children to explore the exhibits and learn about a range of scientific concepts. The scavenger hunt took the kids through the building, out into the wide open lawn where there were great views of the radio telescope, and into the sensory garden at the front. For our kids who have special interests in science and astronomy this was absolutely fantastic. Even six-year-old Delilah (who is easily bored) was engaged for our entire visit. For a place without video games or roller coasters, this is pretty amazing! The Astro Kids activity booklet was $5 but had plenty of activities for a range of ages and both our girls loved it.

parkes jigsaw funThe information centre is not very big so it was easy for each of the kids to wander and look at the displays in their own time, all remaining within sight of us. Delilah did a jigsaw while the older kids read information cards about the radio telescope, space exploration and the like. As the information centre is not a lot more than a gift shop and a selection of displays, it was also relatively quiet, which we all appreciated. There is a small theatre where they show a half-hour documentary, though we did not stick around for this. We did go to the attached cafe, however, and have a much needed cup of coffee and ice-cream!

parkes radio telescope gardenWe spent as much time outside the information centre as we did inside. The kids enjoyed being out the back to look at the telescope, but really loved exploring the garden at the front. It had all kinds of interesting facts and features, including “whisper dishes” that conveyed sounds across the entire garden and a tree grown from a cutting of Isaac Newton’s apple tree – you know, the legendary apple that fell on his head and helped him refine ideas about gravity! We thought it was pretty cool!

Overall, taking the detour to visit the Parkes radio telescope was well worth it and I would highly recommend you check it out if you have the opportunity.

Making the most of your trip

The radio telescope is the kind of place you have to actually plan to go to – it’s 20km outside Parkes in western New South Wales so you probably won’t just wake up and decide “we’re off to the radio telescope today”! Having said that, Parkes is less than a 1.5 hour drive from Dubbo, Orange and Cowra so if you are staying at or on your way to any of these places it is very convenient for a day trip or short break.

As you probably won’t need much more than an hour or so at the radio telescope, perhaps plan to have morning tea there, or check out some of the other great attractions in Parkes.

When preparing your kids for a visit to the radio telescope talk to them about the history of the radio telescope and the role it played in the moon landing. This will help them understand why you are heading out to the country to look at a big metal dish! Tell them that you will be able to see the outside of the radio telescope, but not inside. There are a number of hands-on exhibits in the information centre that they will be able to try out, too.

Be sure to explain to your kids what a radio telescope is – otherwise they may be expecting to see a more traditional telescope that you look through.

You’re not going to need to pack much specifically for this destination. There are both inside and outside parts, so hats and sunglasses are always a good idea, but otherwise you should be fine. Be aware that you must turn off or switch mobile devices to “airplane” mode, so they won’t really be needed, beyond taking photos.

There is a cafe that had a good variety of from sandwiches to hot food, coffee and cold drinks. Otherwise, you might plan to eat in Parkes, or maybe pack a picnic lunch to have somewhere along the way.

If you are not staying in Parkes, you will need all your usual road trip supplies to keep the kids occupied and happy!

I liked the fact the information centre was small enough for me to wander and learn, while still being able to keep an eye on the kids. However, if there were a lot of visitors, I could imagine the place would get crowded and noisy very quickly. Luckily the radio telescope has both indoor and outdoor spaces, there is plenty of opportunity to move away and have some space.

Obviously the cafe is handy for a much needed cuppa!

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