Astronomical heritage – celebrating the birth of radio astronomy

Photograph of the Christiansen's, Miller Goss  and Hastings Pawsey
The Christiansen’s (Left), Miller Goss (Centre), Hastings Pawsey (Right), making connections on the Birth Of Radio Astronomy Walk at Dover Heights. Photo T. Stevenson, 2014.

The ‘Birth of Radio Astronomy’ walk, held on Sunday 6 July 2014, was a great opportunity for participants to find out some of the behind-the-scenes details from Professor Miller Goss, radio astronomer and author of ‘Making Waves: the story of Ruby Payne Scott, Australian pioneer radio astronomer’ plus enjoy a morning in the sunshine at spectacular locations. Goss spent nine years in Australia and researched in radio astronomy with many of the people who were vital in developing this field, including Bruce Slee, Chris Christiansen, John Pawsey, John Bolton, Bernie Mills, Wayne Orchiston and Ron Ekers. Of particular interest to Goss  is the contribution made by Ruby Payne-Scott, whose discoveries made at Dover Heights field station in the 1940s were particularly important. She was the first woman working in radio astronomy.

We started at Rodney Reserve, Dover Heights. This was  the site of the first discovery of solar activity using a technique called ‘interferometry’, made on Australia Day, 1956, by Payne-Scott.  Anyone can go there and see the monument and replica of one of the radio antennas by looking over the cliff-face. Payne-Scott was one of a team of radio engineers who were working under John Pawsey’s direction at the CSIR ( now called CSIRO). Hastings Pawsey, John’s son, joined us on the walk and he added to the story. His father is to be the subject of the next book which Miller Goss is co-authoring. Also on the walk was Tim Christiansen, son of Chris Christiansen an innovative and highly influential radio astronomer. Tim remembers visiting Sydney Observatory with his father and family for a night telescope viewing conducted when Harley Wood was the Director and NSW Government astronomer.

Miller Goss explains interferometry at the Radio Astronomy monument
Miller Goss explains interferometry at the Radio Astronomy monument, Rodney Reserve. Photo T. Stevenson 2014

Sydney Observatory has a direct connection with early radio astronomy as it was Harley Wood, who helped identify Taurus as one of the first galaxies able to be imaged using radio technology.

Some of our group also sighted whales breaching out to sea. We then walked around to the South Head Signal Station and were given a very special guided tour by Marine Rescue NSW.  This is the site of Australia’s first signalling point, dating back to 1790. We were able to go up into the Signal Station designed in 1838 by Mortimer Lewis,and added onto during the 1840s. Lewis was also the architect for the Fort Phillip Signal Station which is part of the Sydney Observatory site. It was very interesting to see the Marine Rescue volunteers in action and be able to look west to the city and clearly see Sydney Observatory and Fort Phillip Signal Station.

South Head Signal Station
South Head Signal Station, designed by Mortimer Lewis, constructed 1837-1840s. Photo T. Stevenson 2014

South Head Battery, which dates back to the 1890s, was also an interesting stop on our walk. Mary Knaggs from the NSW Government Architects office has written a  Conservation Management Plan for this important site well worth a read for its insight into the heritage of this area.

Our final stop was at the anchor of HMS Dunbar, wrecked just below the cliffs near The Gap in 1857. This tragic tale had a major impact on the colony and was an impetus for the colonial government to improve its lighthouses and signalling devices. Furthermore soon after the disaster NSW Government Astronomer, William Scott, ensconced at the almost-completed Sydney Observatory, hurried along with organising the astronomical and timekeeping instruments so the time ball could be regularly and accurately dropped. This was to provide a signal by which ships could accurately set the time on their chronometers and therefore navigate through treacherous coastlines more accurately.

Sydney City Skywatcher walking tour
Sydney City Skywatcher walking tour in front of the anchor from the ill-fated HMS Dunbar. Photo T.Stevenson 2014

This walk was organised by the Sydney City Skywatchers, an astronomy group who meet the first Monday of the month, 6:30pm, at Sydney Observatory. Professor Miller Goss is the guest speaker on 7 July 2014.





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