The future of Southern Hemispheric radio astronomy was in my hands, at least for the next 30 minutes or so.
The staggering advances in technology that channel radio signals from deep, DEEP space through the 6-Dish Australia Telescope Compact Array working together to simulate a much larger antenna were apparently not quite advanced enough to drown out the rather weak signal emitted by my mobile phone.
Strangely appealing though the thought of death by Optus* was to whatever radio signal data was filtering its lonely way across the aeons of light years separating earth from the nebulae and galaxies behind the sheltering sky above, I made an uncharacteristic decision to play nice.
I switched the mobile off. Danged thing wasn’t receiving a signal anyway.
And, more importantly, who knew if any of the ~400 astronomers who use the Compact Array and other Australian radio telescopes each year were lurking over in the unmistakeably government-issue buildings behind me?
The sinking sun silhouetted five of the massive parabolic dishes, each 22 metres (~72 feet) in diameter and weighing 270 tonnes, against the clear evening sky. They could just as easily have been in a different configuration anywhere along the 3 km (1.86 miles) of track separating them from the 6th dish, fixed in position at its western end.
I lined them up for a full-frontal Compact Array shot. Sweet.
Yes, size DOES matter!
But the thrill of nailing a rare** 5-dishes-in-a-Compact-Array-at-the-end-of-the-universe shot ALMOST distracted me from the unobtrusive white structure between the Car Park and the Visitor Centre.
Way back in the dim, distant past when this blog was taking its first uncertain steps towards the fame and fortune that still eludes it, I naively dubbed Scenic Public Toilet #4 ‘The Little Public Toilet at the End of the Universe’.
But … I was wrong.
Even if it does resemble a moonscape, how can a remote Outback spot compete with an obscure New South Wales location in the Namoi Valley’s agricultural belt near Narrabri in the ancient and mystical land of OZ on an unimportant planet in an off-the-beaten-track galaxy hidden in an out-of-the-way corner of the universe??
Putting aside all thoughts of black holes – and other unsavoury astronomic phenomena – I couldn’t help appreciating the contrast between the symbols of humanity’s lowly response to nature’s call and the ultimate pinnacle of humanity’s search for meaning in the universe.
As the afternoon light faded and the stars began to appear, we left the Compact Array Visitor Centre for nearby Narrabri.
And I turned my mobile back on.
* An Australian mobile phone network carrier
** Well, do YOU have one??
- Australia Telescope Compact Array
- Narrabri, New South Wales
- Australian Scenic Public Toilet #4
- Other Australian Scenic Public Toilets