Standing up for Canberra

Canberra and the Stars

Last month, I took part in the Australian National University's Guinness world record attempt for the greatest number of telescopes pointed at once at the night sky. More than 285 stargazing parties were registered across Australia, with thousands of telescopes delivered across the country. We're not talking about cardboard telescopes; we're talking about good-quality, entry-level telescopes that you'd probably get from Australian Geographic shops to help Australians develop an interest in—perhaps even a love for—astronomy.

That night, the night of the big stargazing Guinness world record attempt, I went to the front of Parliament House—it was freezing—with one of my staff to the party. It was held here, on the lawns of Parliament House. I really was pleased to see my colleagues the Member for Macquarie and Senator Ketter, also raising a telescope to the night sky, as well as some luminaries from the Australian National University, from the various departments. World experts were standing with me when we were looking up at the Moon and stars, trying to break the record on a cold Canberra night of sitting. According to media reports, more than 40,000 people simultaneously observed the Moon through telescopes for 10 minutes, eclipsing the previous record set by the ANU in 2015 of 7,960 people. It will be a tough act to follow.

Our event host was Professor Brian Cox, we had Brian Schmidt with us on the lawns, but Brian Cox - the rock star of astronomy. I have a huge crush on that man—I'm confessing here, right now! He was the event host; it was telecast right across Australia. It was lovely looking at Professor Brian Cox and seeing him beamed right across Australia as part of this world record attempt. He said that breaking the record is only half of the story. He went on to say:

The real value is that many thousands of Australians have been introduced to the wonders of the night sky, and many of those will be children. They will develop a lifelong interest in astronomy and science, and the impact of that will be felt in decades to come.

Professor Cox's words have made me stop and think about space and space sciences, and the wonder that most of us had when we heard about the Apollo mission to the moon. I'm dating myself here, but I remember when I was a child—and there are some over across the aisle who may remember this as well—making my little lunar module when we were waiting, eagerly anticipating the first person on the moon. I had my little lunar module. I'd just done some research and found out that in the really posh, expensive breakfast cereals you actually got the plastic module. But I actually made mine out of cardboard—I think that was on the back of the relatively cheaper breakfast cereal that I had.

The Apollo missions to the moon excited all of Australia and the entire world. Here we were, as children, making our little lunar modules or pulling them out of the posh breakfast cereal. And there was Voyager's discoveries of other planets—and who could forget that first time we saw those amazing photos of the rings around Saturn?

Since the stargazing event sparked my interest, I've since learned even more about Canberra's longstanding and proud connection to space, astronomy and astrophysics. I'm lucky to be able to say that my electorate of Canberra is home to the Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the ANU; the Mount Stromlo Observatory and the Canberra Deep Space Communications Complex.

The Mount Stromlo Observatory is one of the oldest institutions in the ACT, with astronomical observations occurring on the mountain since the early 1900s. The Commonwealth Solar Observatory was established on the site in 1924, and its research focused on solar and atmospheric physics. During the Second World War the observatory was used as an optical munitions establishment, and it was only after the war that its research direction shifted towards stellar and galactic astronomy. Aren't they fantastic words: stellar and galactic astronomy!

The observatory was amalgamated with the ANU in 1957 to support the university's astronomy degrees. A short time later the university established a second observatory at Siding Spring in the Warrumbungle Mountains to provide a permanent dark site in response to the increasing growth and light in Canberra. Both of the observatories—Mount Stromlo and Siding Spring—formed one of the leading optical astronomical observatories in the world, supporting innovative and world-leading research into the structure and evolution of planets, stars and galaxies; the origin and development of the universe; and the physics of stars. Researchers also collaborate internationally, gaining access to different telescopes and keeping Australian astronomers at the forefront of astronomical research.

The ANU's Vice-Chancellor Brian Schmidt, who was there stargazing with me and my colleagues just a few weeks ago, led a top science team at the observatory in the 1990s, studying the rate of change of the cosmic expansion. In 1998 his team reached the conclusion that the cosmic expansion was accelerating, contrary to expectations. What this acceleration meant—and I'm not an astronomy expert, so I hope I get this right, Brian—is that it showed the existence of dark energy, a top science breakthrough which culminated in Brian receiving the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2011, along with his peers Saul Perlmutter and Adam Reiss.

Brian's success is a great story, showing Canberra's research prowess and affinity with space. Unfortunately, the fires of 2003 damaged the telescope capabilities on Mount Stromlo, and since then some capabilities have moved to its sister site, the Siding Spring Observatory. Despite this, new capabilities and opportunities have since been developed at Mount Stromlo. It is now home to the Advanced Instrumentation Technology Centre, a world-class facility for developing astronomical instrumentation. I have been out there; you can only imagine the precision work that you have to do in this space to build and test small satellites and space payloads.

But Canberra's space connection isn't only about research. We have also had a role in supporting a number of space missions undertaken by NASA. During the mid-1960s, NASA built three tracking stations in Canberra. The Tidbinbilla Tracking Station, which is now the Canberra Deep Space Communications Complex, opened in 1965 and is the only NASA tracking station in Australia still in operation. The Tidbinbilla Valley, 35 kilometres to the south-west of Canberra, was chosen to be the place for the deep space tracking station because of its close proximity to a city and because of the surrounding ridges—Cooleman Ridge, Urambi Hills and Bullen Range—that help to shield it from unwanted radio frequency noise. This is something unique to Canberra. During the Apollo program, Tidbinbilla was used for tracking the Apollo lunar module and was involved in the Mariner 4 spacecraft encounter with Mars.

The second station, the Orroral Valley Tracking Station, was opened in May 1965 in Namadgi National Park. Its role was orbiting satellite support, although it also supported the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975. Unfortunately, it was closed in 1985.

And finally, Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station, also located in Namadgi National Park, opened in 1967 and was built primarily to support the Apollo moon missions—mainly communications with the Apollo command module. It was the 26-metre antenna at Honeysuckle Creek that received and relayed to the world the first historic TV images of Neil Armstrong setting foot on the moon on 21 July 1969, not the dish at Parkes—and I'm sure I'm going to be getting lots of mail about this—in the member for Calare's electorate that the movie portrayed. After the cancellation of the Apollo project, the station continued its important work. The station supported Skylab until its re-entry in 1979 and then joined the Deep Space Network in support of the Viking and Voyager projects to investigate the gas giants Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

1981 saw the closure of Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station. Its antenna was moved to Tidbinbilla to become known as Deep Space Station 46, and it's there today. After the antenna was removed, the rest of the facility was dismantled and knocked down. Its foundation, access road and parking area are all that remains of this historic facility. After all of these missions, there was a period of construction at the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex, with bigger and better antennas built to allow communication with spacecraft over longer distances. The complex is still a working location and is managed by the CSIRO, and it continues to support satellite communications, space shuttle missions and the Hubble Space Telescope as they pass over the Indian Ocean and Australia.

The Australian Astronomical Observatory (Transition) Bill 2018 focuses on the Australian Astronomical Observatory and unfortunate but necessary changes that we have to make. The observatory was established in 2010 to manage the operations of the Anglo-Australian Telescope. The need for the observatory came about because the government's partner at the time, the United Kingdom, withdrew from the joint funding arrangement during the GFC. The funding secured from government would cover the operations of the observatory for 20 years, to 2020.

For a number of years, members of the scientific community have asked government to explore entering a partnership with the European Southern Observatory so that access could be given to the La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile. The funding envelope for such an arrangement has been beyond the capabilities of government until recently, when the European Southern Observatory approached government with an offer of a 10-year strategic partnership at a cost of $119 million. The government will make the agreement happen by transferring existing optical astronomy resources from the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science to the research community, saving $25.2 million. The arrangements will give the astronomy community access to the La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile. But it will also mean the end of an era; it will mean the end of the Australian Astronomical Observatory, because it will need to close. That is the purpose of today's bill. It will abolish the observatory and allow for its functions to be transitioned to two consortiums to manage.

The 3.9-metre Anglo-Australian Telescope is currently located at Siding Spring Observatory, owned by the ANU, and will be transferred to a consortium managed by the ANU. The astronomical instrumentation capability, currently located at North Ryde in Sydney, will be transferred to a consortium led by Macquarie University. What this bill clearly shows is the funding cliff that torments many areas of scientific research in Australia. It shows that it is real. In this particular case, the new agreement simply pushes astronomy research back from the precipice for another 10 years. At that time, further decisions will need to be made. Will Australia become a full member of the European Southern Observatory? Will the research community or government seek access for Australian science to another telescope? Or, worse, will we discontinue or abandon this area of scientific leadership that Australia has enjoyed for so long?

While we have another 10 years before we need to make any of these decisions, I will make it clear that Labor supports retaining Australia's capability in optical astronomy. As the member for Canberra, I am very, very proud that my community is home to one of Australia's universities that is leading the way in astronomy research and that we have a proud and longstanding connection already to space and space sciences. It makes sense that Canberra is considered the home for the new space agency, and I welcome the commitment that was made by the Shadow Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research last week at the Strategy for Space conference, organised by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, where he said that Labor was committed to basing the new space agency in Canberra.

There's a natural fit. We have a rich history of the Mount Stromlo Observatory and the Canberra Deep Space Communications Complex. We have the Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the ANU, led by a vice-chancellor who knows space and won a Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery. We have the scientific skills of staff in the CSIRO, the Bureau of Meteorology, the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science. We have the engineering and coordination expertise in the Department of Defence and we have the Department of Communications and the Arts and the Australian Communications and Media Authority. These are the government agencies that industry comes to Canberra to work with, so it makes sense that Canberra would be the right fit, the natural home, for a space agency and for space facilities.

Australians have a great love for space. We saw it in the sixties, where everyone was out with their lunar modules and talking nothing but space and missions to the moon. Through the expertise that we have and through a commitment to a space agency and investment in space in the future, Labor hopes that we can excite future generations to enjoy the pleasure that we enjoyed so much in the sixties in that first mission to the moon.