Nature and Telescopes Run

14 March 2016 / Barry Matson

Canberra is famed for its many short-sighted politicians, but how many Australians know that it also has international recognition for its far-sighted scientists.  Each year our club honours them with a run around some of the facilities, and padded out by a scenic drive through some of the best ACT bush scenery.

Barry and Elfie led the run this year on 20 February in their crystal blue NB3.  Fifteen other MX5s had turned up at the 09:30 start at the Defence HQ at Russell.  Although the forecasters were threatening the possibility of light showers, the morning skies were barely overcast with just enough shade from the summer sun to make going topless the preferred option.  As the morning wore on the sky became a little more threatening, but by noon the clouds had cleared away.  Although the sun then became quite relentless, the tops stayed down.

We began with a leisurely drive around the airport and out to the border town of Queanbeyan.  Most Australians will be aware that Canberra has a pretty little artificial lake in its centre, but perhaps fewer appreciate that nearby Queanbeyan has a much larger water reservoir lake formed in a beautiful bush valley by the construction of the Googong Dam. This was our first stop, and the natural beauty was nicely complimented by the rainbow of 16 MX5s lined up at the lookout.

We had plenty of time to admire the lake but, since there was no food available, we cut our visit shorter than planned, and headed for our picnic lunch at Tidbinbilla Nature Park.  This involved some excellent sports car driving on the old and new Cooma roads.  Lunch was a leisurely affair on travel rugs and lawn chairs, with interesting conversations on many diverse subjects. Then, with the entire afternoon still in front of us, we decided to add an unplanned stop at the nearby NASA facility.

 The NASA Deep Space Tracking station at Tidbinbilla boasts one of those large microwave radio dishes that most people probably associate with radio astronomers exploring the universe. However this one is different, since its prime role is to keep in touch with man-made spacecraft that are visiting other planets and beyond. In fact, it is still in touch with the earliest space probe, Voyager 1, launched in 1977, as it moves on out of our solar system, having wildly exceeded expectations for its useful life.  One day soon the sunlight reaching its solar panels will be so weak that its batteries will go flat and communications with Earth will cease.  Quite possibly it may, in the distant future, come close enough to another star to perk up again.

From Tidbinbilla we took the spectacular winding MX5 road past the Cotter dam to the famous Mt Stromlo optical telescope facility.  This site, which is operated by ANU scientists, was destroyed in the devastating 2003 bush fires that even wiped out parts of Canberra.  Now, new facilities have been installed and the astronomy research continues. The view from there is magnificent, but since it now includes some of Canberra’s outer suburbs, the site is probably not as good as it once was for astronomy.

After taking some group photos we departed independently for home: Elfie and Barry a little sun drenched red by then.