Tuesday, 19 May 2009

An eventful trip to Parkes

I recently spent a few days observing at Parkes for the PPTA project. Trips to the telescope usually produce some good stories but this was an eventful trip even by Parkes' standards.

The first morning when I went to have breakfast there was a full size traffic cone in front of each of the dinning room doors. Confused I went to the kitchen where I was told that we couldn't use the dinning room due to, I quote, "maggots falling from the ceiling." It seems that something had died in the roof space and the maggots that were living off the something were eating through the ceiling and falling into the room below. As if free-falling maggots weren't enough occasionally one would get into a nearby air-conditioning vent which, when the unit cycled on, was propelled at high speed across the room.

At this point I though I had my Parkes story of the trip and my Facebook post on the subject got quite a response.

Then a couple of nights later RM turned up to relieve me at the customary 4am shift change. "You'll have to run the gauntlet of the bogongs," he said. Bogongs are large moths that are well known for their migration south in the spring occasionally swamping Sydney. They range in size from about the size of your hand to the size of a bird. It turns out that they migrate back north in the autumn. The lights of the telescope had attracted quite a swarm and they matted the ground around the door. The (white) car was parked under a light and was covered to the extent that I had to shoo them off the windscreen before driving back.

The next day I woke briefly at 6am as the sun was rising and saw that the bogongs had moved on leaving the ground littered with the bodies of those that had not made it through the night. The birds were feasting and by the time I got up the only evidence the previous night's infestation was the occasional broken wing blowing in the wind and some very fat birds.

That evening I was on the night shift when an alarm sounded and the telescope ground to a halt. The computer warned of a loss of tracking of the master equatorial (ME). The ME is a small telescope in the heart of Parkes that points a laser beam; the radio telescope follows this beam. I restarted but only got a few minutes of observations before the same error occurred. I climbed up to the ME room to investigate.

The telescope was slewed over to a low elevation so the light in the ME room was practically at floor level and not much help. Using my torch I look for any possible obstruction. There were a few cobwebs around the ME, not enough to cause a problem but I grabbed the cobweb brush
(left in the room for just such occasions) and cleaned the webs away. As I was poking the brush into the tube down which the laser shines something large and flappy shot out of the tube brushing my hard-hat. Heroically I dropped the torch, the brush and slid down the ladder to the junction room.

I recovered my composure and what was left of my dignity and climbed back up to the ME room. While it sounded like a bird I thought it was probably a bogong trapped in the room and attracted to the laser light. In the dimly lit room I managed to spot a bird, not a moth, perched on a girder. A moth I could squash (even if it is big) but what do you do with a bird? It was a surreal moment. I was standing in the centre of the telescope in the middle of the night trying to convince a bird to leave using a manci old brush and a torch when I suddenly realised; "This is my job!" I turned all the lights on in the junction room and every time the bird landed I prodded it with the brush and eventually it did go into the junction room and then out of the telescope.

Once the bird was evicted the observations went smoothly and we finished our run. Still it was quite a trip.

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