What is this metal structure in a paddock near Bungendore?

Sitting in a sheep paddock near Bungendore is a gigantic cross.

From the air it looks like a giant set of cross hairs, while passing motorists often mistake it as an oversized overhead irrigation system.

However the purposes of this colossal contraption, the largest of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere, are far more momentous than providing sustenance to a crop, in fact they are out of this world.

Part of one arm of the Molonglo Observatory Synthesis Telescope near Bungendore. Photo: Timothy Bateman

Part of one arm of the Molonglo Observatory Synthesis Telescope near Bungendore. Photo: Timothy Bateman

These two arms, each 800 metres long, form the data collecting function for the Molonglo Observatory Synthesis Telescope (or MOST for short), which for over half a century has been a tool used by scientists to explore the mysteries of space.

Safeguarded behind locked gates, the unique facility owned and operated by the University of Sydney's Department of Physics, is usually off-limits to the public. However, as part of the Queanbeyan-Palerang Heritage Festival, early next month the MOST technicians are hosting a free, one-off guided tour that will have space geeks salivating.

Earlier this week, I was lucky enough to take a sneak peek at what's in store for those lucky enough to secure spots on the tour.

As the yowie mobile pulls up in a pall of dust, MOST senior technical officer Timothy Bateman steps out of the nerve centre of the operation, a clutch of buildings located near the intersection of the cross, to greet me.

The telescope shortly after former prime minister Robert Menzies opened it in 1965. Photo: University of Sydney archives

The telescope shortly after former prime minister Robert Menzies opened it in 1965. Photo: University of Sydney archives

On approach he removes his spectacles to rub his eyes. Cooped up inside the air-conditioned bunker crafting new circuitry boards and analysing data all day, the bright sun seems to stun him.

"Keep an eye out for brown and tiger snakes, this is their prime habitat," he warns, as like a kid in a lolly shop, I scurry headlong through the grass to take that must-have snap of the two arms of the array telescope, which together have a collecting area of about 18,000 square meters.

While originally built to undertake pioneering radio astronomy and to map the southern radio sky, Timothy explains that the main purpose of MOST is now to search for Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs), one of space's great modern mysteries.

"First discovered just 10 years ago at CSIRO's Parkes radio telescope, FRBs are millisecond-duration intense pulses of radio light that appear to be coming from vast distances," explains Timothy. They also happen to be about a billion times more luminous than anything we have ever seen in our own Milky Way galaxy.

A billion times! Now, that's what I call bright.

Because conventional single-dish radio telescopes like Parkes have difficulty establishing that transmissions originate beyond the Earth's atmosphere, due to its unique array design with enormous focal point, MOST was chosen to help detect more FRBs.

And it's paying dividends - it's already been involved in 10 FRB discoveries, the latest being on March 22 this year.

Professor Michael Large (University of Sydney) at work building the telescope circa 1965. Photo: University of Sydney archives

Professor Michael Large (University of Sydney) at work building the telescope circa 1965. Photo: University of Sydney archives

"When we discover an FRB it's a big day and we do celebrate," says Timothy. "Figuring out where the bursts come from is the key to understanding what makes them."

"We are currently working to improve the telescope even more to hopefully improve our ability to localise bursts to an individual galaxy," further explains the electrical whiz.

While you get a scale of the data collection by walking along the array's arms and gawking in awe at its 352 independent antennae across 88 bays, it's only once inside the facility's temperature-controlled nerve centre that you get an idea of the extent of data crunching.

"That's where the data first comes in", says Timothy, pointing at a wall of leads coming from the arrays into a room crammed with as much custom processing hardware as you'd expect to see at NASA control centre.

"The data from the telescope is streaming in here at 700 gigabits a second," says Timothy. "The modern electronics give us such good sensitivity that with one metre of new electronic feed we can see what took the entire telescope back in the 1960s to discover."

Mobile phone signals can interfere with the work undertaken at the telescope. Photo: Tim the Yowie Man

Mobile phone signals can interfere with the work undertaken at the telescope. Photo: Tim the Yowie Man

Despite the MOST's long list of discoveries, including spotting the brightest supernova since the invention of telescopes in 1987, Duncan Campbell-Smith, the semi-retired former officer in charge, says one of the most common questions he is asked is about the possible existence of aliens.

"I'm very pragmatic when it comes to the possibility of little green men, all the building blocks for life are out there ... the probability is there," he says.

However, before you start reaching for your tin foil hats, Duncan qualifies his statement. "But we haven't seen or heard any yet," he says.

Sure, you may need a PhD (or two) in electrical engineering and astronomy to completely decipher the ground-breaking work being undertaken at the MOST, but opportunities to visit scientific facilities of this calibre are rare.

Book early to avoid disappointment, and who knows, if the planets align, you may even be on location when the next FRB is discovered by the MOST. Now that would be something.

Oh, and watch out for the snakes!

Fact File

Telescope tour: Numbers strictly limited. 10.30am, Tuesday, May 7. Bookings essential via Benita Tunks benita.tunks@qprc.nsw.gov.au The MOST is located about 16 kilometres south of Bungendore along the Hoskinstown Road.

More: If you miss out on a spot on the tour, you can still find out more about the MOST by checking out the travelling exhibition currently on show at the Bungendore Library (in Gibraltar Street). Call ahead (Ph: 6238 0784) to confirm opening times.

Beam me up, OPH

Rocket display out the front of Old Parliament House in 1963. Photo: Museum of Australian Democracy Collection

Rocket display out the front of Old Parliament House in 1963. Photo: Museum of Australian Democracy Collection

Have you ever wanted to explore the roof of Old Parliament House (OPH)? Well for the next week, participants on the Canberra landmark's latest Mystery Tour can do just that.

To celebrate the Canberra Region Heritage Festival's space theme, the folk at the Museum of Australian Democracy at OPH have donned NASA jumpsuits, and twice daily (11am and 3pm) until April 28 are leading visitors on a trek back through time to a world of moon rocks, UFOs and tracking stations.

The tour, cleverly dubbed 'One Small Step', starts in the old House of Representatives Chamber where a number of debates unfolded during the 1960s space race, including one about whether new technology would enable Russians to take control of our TV sets. Really!

Display of space paraphernalia inside Kings Hall at Old Parliament House in the 1960s. Photo: National Archives of Australia.

Display of space paraphernalia inside Kings Hall at Old Parliament House in the 1960s. Photo: National Archives of Australia.

After donning white gloves (for conservation purposes) the tour winds through the Kings Hall to the former PM's suite where you can see up close one of the first photos taken of Australia from space, along with the menus the astronauts were offered when they returned to Australia for a celebratory knees-up.

The quirky 45-minute historical exposé is capped off with a clamber up a secret stairwell to the rooftop, but to find out why, you'll have to go on the tour. I don't want to spoil all the fun.

Good fun for ages 9 to 90. $8pp. Bookings essential via moadoph.gov.au

MAILBAG

Downhill daredevils

This column's recent snippet on the daredevil skateboarders of Clyde Mountain prompted Dawne Ballard to report a similar encounter while driving along the Snowy Mountains Highway.

"Not far past Adaminaby I encountered a man riding a skateboard down a steep hill in the middle of the road," reports Dawne. "He was wearing shorts and a t-shirt - no helmet or other protective gear."

According to Dawne, "It took a few minutes for him to realise I was behind him and move to the side of the road and until I read your column, I thought I must have been seeing things,'' muses Dawne. Crazy indeed.

Contact Tim: Email: timtheyowieman@bigpond.com or Twitter: @TimYowie or write c/- The Canberra Times, 9 Pirie St, Fyshwick.

Where in Canberra?

Do you know the location of this colourful bovine? Tim the Yowie Man

Do you know the location of this colourful bovine? Tim the Yowie Man

Clue: What happened to all the emus?

Degree of difficulty: Easy - Medium

Last week: Congratulations to Warren Clendenning of Holt who was the first person to identify last week's photo as the Canberra Fire Brigade Museum at 14 Empire Circuit in Forrest. "The old-style helmets were a memory jogger for me," says Warren who just beat regular entrant Ian McKenzie of Fisher, Roger Shelton of Spence and Juanita Lee, also of Spence, to the prize.

The Canberra Fire Brigade Museum in Forrest. Photo: Tim the Yowie Man

The Canberra Fire Brigade Museum in Forrest. Photo: Tim the Yowie Man

Special note to David Evans who reports his father, Norm Evans, was 2IC to chief Jack Mundy at the station in the 1960s and 70s. "Many years after my father retired (he was in his 90s then) I would take him to the reunions held at museum where he met up with those he trained, worked with and mentored," says David. "He loved training firemen to be their best, and also loved fighting fires and climbing."

Norm Evans at the last reunion he attended in 2007. Photo: David Evans

Norm Evans at the last reunion he attended in 2007. Photo: David Evans

Don't miss: On Saturday April 27 (9am-4.30pm), the museum is swinging its doors open (entry by gold coin donation). The open day will feature displays that track the 100-plus years of the brigade technology and personnel and is an ideal chance to check out the museum's large collection of historic fire brigade vehicles, equipment and uniforms.

Meanwhile, more information has emerged about David 'Murph' Murphy whose unusual memorial engraved on bricks and emblazoned with the words 'Master of Brickology' on the walls of the Florey Building at ANU recently featured in this photo quiz.

Murph's son Nik reveals: "Murph had a huge personality which grew on everyone, he was always cheeky with something to say and although people wouldn't think that there is much to bricklaying, he was very talented at it."

According to Nik, "the brickology reference originates from my youngest brother's [Harry] university graduation when Murph donned Harry's graduation hat and much to the mirth of everyone tried to convince other graduates that he just graduated with a 'Masters in Brickology'.

Murph died of a heart attack during the refurbishment of the Florey Building in 2014 and with the agreement of the ANU his family arranged for the quirky memorial.

How to enter: Email your guess along with your name and address to timtheyowieman@bigpond.com. The first email sent after 10am, Saturday April 20, 2019 will win a double pass to Dendy - The Home of Quality Cinema.