Sunday, 20 September 2009

A trip to Effelsberg

Last week Michael took Paulo and me to see the telescope in Effelsberg. I'd been to Effelsberg before during a conference in Bonn over six years ago but this visit was more interesting because I knew I would be using this telescope a lot over the coming years. Unfortunately, unlike the day six years ago, it was cloudy and rainy.

The Effelsbserg telescope on a sunny day The Effelsberge telescope on a rainy day

We were introduced to the local staff and shown around the main building before going on a tour of the telescopes. I say telescopes because a new LOFAR station has been built next to the 100m. While LOFAR will be an amazing instrument and this station alone has the same collecting area as Parkes, it's not exactly spectacular to look at. It is basically a lot of wire in a field with a big box-o'-electronics next to it. Still, it's going to be fun to use.

The LOFAR station at Effelsberg The primary focus cabin

Then we turned our attention to the 100m itself. It's a beautifully designed telescope which changes its shape in an entirely predictable way as it moves. This means that unlike the GBT it can maintain an accurate high-frequency surface without needing actuators. We took a lift up to the top of the towers. To get to the focus cabin the telescope was pointed nearly horizontally allowing us to walk along one of the support arms. This has the added advantage of not having to climb all the way. From the arm you get a good view of the primary and secondary focus cabins.

The secondary focus cabin The primary focus cabin and secondary reflector

Once inside the primary focus cabin the telescope was slewed so that it was pointing directly up. It was interesting how our perception of the space in the focus cabin changed as the floor slowly became the wall and visa-versa. Once we'd reached the zenith we climbed up to the roof to admire the slightly damp view of the valley.

The view from the top The cable wrap
The view down a cabin support arm The control room

Back on the ground we inspected the cable wrap before heading to the control room. In the rack of backends I saw a familiar sight, a PDFB from the ATNF. It still needs a bit of work before we can use it regularly. There was also the new multibeam backend which vital for the new survey.

The PDFB The multibeam backend

After a quick meeting we drove back to Bonn, stopping for a late lunch and a beer in a nearby village. I'm looking forward to going back to observe!

Monday, 14 September 2009


've been in Germany for nearly two weeks now. Luckily I've not had any jet-lag worth mentioning, in fact it's been nice to be getting up early in the mornings. I'm staying at the Internationales Gästhaus just a couple of mins walk from the lab. It's small but has everything I need for the moment.

My office isn't quite ready yet so I'm sharing with Norbert. He, Paulo, Aris and I make up the pulsar group, but there are more people on the way. The weather has been beautiful and we've been eating out on the roof most days despite the wasps.

Park in Bonn Park in Bonn

At the weekends I've been out exploring Bonn. It's quite a nice little city with plenty of old buildings and lots of parks and squares. Despite the city being small on Saturdays it's very busy with people shopping and there's something happening in most of the squares. But on Sundays all the shops must shut by law and it's a ghost-town. The public transport is excellent and there are plenty of bicycle lanes. Living in Canada and Australia I'd almost forgotten that bicycles existed but here they're everywhere.

Bicycles in Bonn Münster in Bonn

The latest news is that I've found a flat in Bad Godesberg, just 4 mins by train from Bonn. It's nice and big with a spare room for visitors and a south-east facing balcony for my satellite dish :) Unfortunately it doesn't have a kitchen or any light fittings which is normal in Germany. There's lots to do but it's relief to have found somewhere already.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Leaving Sydney

Ten days ago the removers came and took all of my worldly possessions to send them to Germany. I had spent the week before taking apart all my Ikea furniture to keep the shipping-volume down. By the end of the week I was sleeping on the sofa and living out of a suitcase.

Boxes, boxes and more boxes

They took four hours to pack up all 75 boxes / thingies and take them away. It was pretty stressful watching my things bump around in the back of the ute on their way up to the van.

The ute loaded up Transferring from the ute to the van

After that I moved into George's spare room which he had kindly offered for my last week. It was surprisingly tidy, I suspect that the imminent arrive of Sha may have had something to do with this :) The last week was good fun, every night we were drinking and eating somewhere with friends. Jono and I even managed a last Pizza Tuesday.

I had the traditional pulsar farewell at Fusion before Dick left for Parkes. It was nice that so many people could come to say goodbye (and avoid the cafeteria). I sold my car and returned the house so that I could spend my last weekend in Sydney having fun rather than messing around with moving.

On my last weekend we had a little BBQ around at George's house. That day he was busy taking Sha to Manly (well there's a double entendre for you - but since it's George that I'm talking about, Manly clearly refers to the place). Anyway, Vik helped me go shopping and grab food, beer and fuel for the BBQ but we forgot to lock the house and we found Anna tidying when we returned.

Burnin' down the house mahjong

I really enjoyed the BBQ. Anna burnt down George's garden, George played a duet with Sha, Sha and Jono beat everyone else at mahjong and Jo kicked my butt at Tetris.

The boat ride out to Watson's Bay The city from Watson's Bay
The next day George, Sha, Jo, Vik and I headed off to Watson's Bay for nice boat ride, a short walk and a great view of the city. It was a stunning (to borrow George's favourite word) day - sunny and cloudless but not too warm.

Jo peaks over the edge

We had fish and chips at the dock then walked around to the head. We passed a nudist beach which was a little disturbing with blokes standing around butt-naked but Sha and Jo seemed interested! We walked around the cliff-top and enjoyed views of the waves breaking against the rocks below. Vik managed to find a way down and we walked around exploring the rock-pools before the rising tide made it time to go. George, of course, managed to get wet.

Vik on a rock

Mike kindly gave me a lift with my huge bag from George's to the ATNF on Monday. I had a final morning tea and said goodbye. George, Jono, Mike, Vik and Neerag waved me off when the taxi arrived. "You're a very popular guy," said the taxi driver. They just wanted to make sure I actually left :)

Unfortunately, on the way to the airport the taxi hit a plastic bollard which then jammed under the car. We had to pull over in one of the tunnel's emergency stopping areas to remove it and check the tires. I thought this might be ominous but other than that it was a pretty smooth trip. My bag weighed 31.4 kg (which means that George's scales are accurate to within 0.2 kg) but I wasn't charged any excess.

The train to Bonn

I managed to sleep well on the flight and arrived in Frankfurt rested. I spoke German for the first time in ages when buying my train ticket. It was easy stuff but I has quite pleased with myself until I turned to leave and said 'Merci', immediately followed by 'Bollox'!

The train travelled along the bank of the Rein all the way up to Bonn. There were lots of little villages nestled between the valley sides and the river and it's really quite picturesque.

crossing the Rein

I got to MPIfR just before 0900, got set up in the guest-house and then was ready for work. I managed to stay awake until 2200 and had a very good night's sleep.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

A last trip to the telescopes

Last week was spent on one last observing trip to the telescopes. First up was a few days at Narrabri observing with ATCA. I drove up with Vik in one of the work Priuses. I'm not the exactly the biggest fan of the hybrids but they're ok, naturally I'd prefer the usual V6 Commodore which has plenty of grunt. However the box of batteries has enough power to overtake the B-doubles and made it all the way on one tank.

Using ATCA we were observing at millimetre wavelengths over a long baseline. I'm more a of a low-frequency single-dish kinda guy so this was new territory for me. At these frequencies we actually had to worry about the seeing and pointing errors, it's practically optical! Also we were using the brand new CABB system which replaced the old correlator that I was used to. Surprisingly the set-up wasn't too difficult and (with a lot of help from the locals) the observations went smoothly despite the occasional wind-stow.

Sunset over ATCA ATCA

After I'd said goodbye to ATCA I drove off down to Parkes where Ramesh and Jonathon had already started our PPTA observations. I love that drive, there's little traffic, the Warrumbungles are beautiful and there's plenty of long straight bits to overtake on. I did have a near miss when a large section of angle-iron fell off the back of a truck but otherwise it was a relaxing drive.

I arrived at Parkes just in time for the wind to drop and observations restart. They went pretty smoothly and I took the opportunity between scans to turn on the floodlights and take some photos. I also visited the visitor centre several times to stock up on Parkes related merchandise :-). Marta and Maura were there and we had fun recounting Parkes stories in the evenings.

Floodlit dish Bacl of floodlit dish

We also had a PULSE@Parkes run but this was from VSSEC so Rob, George and Jono (as in Jonathan not Jonathon) had gone down to Melbourne to cover it. On this run we had the students tweeting what they were doing. We had several astronomers following and even had a bit of press interest. It seemed to go very well and the kids were very enthusiastic.

Signal near Orange Signal near Orange

It was an uneventful drive back but I stopped to take a photo of an old analogue railway signal sat all on its own by the side of the road. I always look out for it between Bathurst and Orange.

I was a bit sad leaving Parkes for the last time before I move to Germany. But I will be back before too long, counting the minutes until shift change! Still it won't quite be the same.

Monday, 10 August 2009

A Manly Walk

Last weekend George, Vikram, Saikia and I went for a walk in Manly. Like all of George's weekend activities it involved the loss of a precious lie-in so we could catch an early train. From Meadowbank we took the ferry down the river to Circular Quay. It was another beautiful winter's day in Sydney, the wind was cool but the sun was shining.

After my sailing trip on the harbour some time ago I had bought some drugs to try and combat the seasickness. I decided that I'd test them out on this trip under controlled circumstances.

Sydney CBD The ferries at Circular Quay

We got to Circular Quay and had a hearty breakfast of doughnuts and coffee while we waited for the Manly ferry to arrive. The Manly ferry is infamous in Sydney for being a rough ride as you pass the Heads so I decided to take one of the pills.

The crossing wasn't bad and we arrived in Manly in time for fish and chips at Shelly beach. It was then that I discovered a side-affect of the drugs - drowsiness. Despite being midday and sunny I was about to fall asleep!

Vikram on the edge Manly and Shelly beaches

After lunch we went on a leisurely walk around North Head. We had great views of Manly and visited what George calls 'The Hidden Lagoon' but is really a big puddle on the top. Vikram did his best to scare George by trying to fall off the cliff while George spotted a couple of dead cuttlefish that he tried to persuade us were still alive.

The lagoon George and Saikia walk around the lagoon

George wanted to get wet so insisted that we sit up front on the ferry for the crossing back to Sydney. After watching the ferry crashing through the waves I took another pill. There were some decent waves and we all got wet so George was happy.

The Manly ferry Sunset

I managed to get home just in time to become comatose. I'm not sure how good these drugs are at preventing seasickness but they're very good for insomnia!

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Kayaking in Sydney harbour

Today George, Dominic and I went kayaking in Sydney harbour. It was another beautiful winter day, not too warm but sunny. We went from the Spit bridge which is surrounded by little coves full of boats moored at very expensive houses. We were told that there were two types of kayak on offer, one stable but slow and the other fast but "a bit tippy". We all decided that "a bit tippy" was probably a bad idea and chose the slow, stable option.

Dominic on the water George on the water

We made our way under the Spit bridge towards a series of coves. Within minutes Dominic managed to break his rudder peddles but after a brief stop in the middle of the waterway he managed to fix them and we were under way again. We dodged boats large and small and headed towards a little rocky outcrop. There we found a swam of moon jellyfish. They're common in the harbour but still fun to watch. George and I spent some time taking photos of them. George is convinced that he also saw a sea cucumber but I think it was a bit of tree.

Dominic and George Moon jellyfish

As we set off again there was a loud splash as Dominic capsized - totally on his own, no boat or rocks in sight. Apparently he was attempting a sharp turn but just ended up spinning on the wrong axis. Thankfully he appeared moments later laughing his head off with the look of a man who knows that by Monday morning everyone is going to have heard about it. Thankfully it wasn't far to the shore and George and I helpfully took photos while Dominic emptied his kayak.

Dominic capsizes A ray

The next cove we went into had the clearest water. We could see to the bottom and there were occasional schools of fish. I spotted a small ray resting on the bottom. I managed to get a few photos before it raced away.

Dominic was nearly dry again by the time we made it back, his ego may take longer to recover. We finished off our trip with a fish and chip supper before heading home.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

The Parkes open day

I spent my second weekend in a row at Parkes, this time it was the Parkes open day. Given all the visitors, helicopters and media broadcasting the RFI environment was bound to be terrible but George managed to persuade Vik and me that it was worth trying to get some observations for one of our projects.

As we gathered for the briefing on the Saturday morning there were already people queuing to get in. Some had come from Victoria and Queensland. It wasn't long before the line for the telescope tours was stretching around the telescope and was 3 hours long. Despite that everyone seemed to be very cheerful and enjoyed the tours. We were in the control room, one of the last stops on the tour and we became expert in explaining what we were observing in 60 seconds or less! George, Vik and I took turns talking to the relentless tours, doing the observations and checking e-mail.

The queue for the telescope tour A tour walks along the AZ track

There were stands from local groups, science outreach people from further afield, shows in the 3D theatre, walks around the grounds, science talks in the marquee and even a bouncy castle!

I gave a live interview on ABC radio in the morning. I was surprised that it lasted 5 mins or more rather than the usual sound-bite. Later a punter from Dubbo told me that he'd heard this fella on the radio talking about pulsars - fame at last! There was a lot of media interest with all the major TV stations sending at least one crew. The ABC arrived in their helicopter.

By the end of the first day we were all knackered. There was a BBQ and bonfires at the woolshed for the volunteers. We stayed late drinking beer (purely medicinal, to sooth our sore throats), telling tall stories and jokes.

The next day I had a talk to give at the main marquee and it was nearly packed. There were lots of good questions and interest and another visitor had heard my radio interview. It was great to meet so many people who are genuinely interesting in what we do.

Aerial view of the Parkes telescope Aerial view of the Parkes telescope

Later on I took a helicopter ride around the telescope. It was a tiny thing with bubble like windows, you could feel every tweak of the controls and gust of wind. It was great to see the telescope from a different angle. It looked much more steeply curved than it does from the ground. I took a few photos and even some video. It was a great trip and has got me thinking about flying lessons again.

We drove through the night on Sunday to get back to Sydney and I decided that Monday morning just wasn't going to happen. It was a long, exhausting but fun weekend. More than 6,500 people visited and more than 3,000 of those took the tour through the telescope. And we may even get some data out of it!