Farewell to an Icon: The Legacy of Molonglo Telescope

2 November 2023
In a celebration of its legacy, the University of Sydney recently bid farewell to the Molonglo Observatory Synthesis Telescope.

The event, a symposium and dinner hosted by the School of Physics and supported by the Physics Foundation and the Hunstead Fund for Astrophysics, brought together leading figures in the field of radio astronomy to commemorate the telescope's remarkable contributions to science over the past 58 years.

The Molonglo telescope has been an integral part of radio astronomy since its inception in 1965. Throughout its decades of service, the telescope played a pivotal role in several important discoveries, contributing to our understanding of the cosmos in profound ways.

Some notable achievements include the comprehensive mapping of the entire southern sky through the Sydney University Molonglo Sky Survey and the Molonglo Galactic Plane Survey, and the pioneering discovery of a pulsar associated with a supernova remnant known as Vela. More recently, research led by Swinburne University with Molonglo resulted in the identification of several Fast Radio Bursts, which are among the most enigmatic and intriguing phenomena in the universe.

Apart from its scientific accomplishments, Molonglo also served as a learning hub for multiple generations of radio astronomers. Dozens of PhD students have been trained at the site under the guidance of dedicated academic staff, including the late Professor Bernard Mills, the late Professor Richard Hunstead, Professor Emerita Anne Green and Professor Elaine Sadler. Collaboration has been a cornerstone of the Molonglo Observatory's operation, with ongoing partnerships, such as those between the CSIRO and Swinburne University, contributing to its long-lasting success.

Professor Tara Murphy speaking at Molonglo symposium 2023

Professor Tara Murphy speaking about the Molonglo telescope and its impact.

While the Molonglo telescope's innovative design allowed for upgrades over the past half-century, the rapidly evolving field of radio astronomy and the emergence of next-generation telescopes at more suitable locations have prompted its retirement.

These include the Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP) telescope in Western Australia, the MeerKAT observatory in South Africa, and the soon to be operational SKA Observatory, a global scientific enterprise involving 16 countries, including Australia.

Professor Tara Murphy is Head of the School of Physics and a leading radio astronomer. She said: “Molonglo has been part of radio astronomy for my entire career, and is symbolic of how Australian science has hit well above its weight on the international stage.”

The symposium and dinner organised in honour of the Molonglo telescope represented a day of reflection and celebration. Leading experts and astronomers from around the world gathered to share insights, fond memories, and to pay tribute to the telescope's influence on the field of radio astronomy.

Professor Anne Green said: “It was very rewarding to hear the many memories and reflections from eminent astronomers who have used the Molonglo Telescope and who spoke of the important discoveries made there, particularly from those who were students at the time.”

Molonglo legacy symposium attendees

Molonglo symposium attendees.

As the Molonglo telescope embarks on its well-deserved retirement, its legacy will live on. Its contributions to radio astronomy, the nurturing of future scientists and its technological innovations will continue to inspire generations to come.

The retirement event was a testament to its enduring impact and a fitting send-off for an iconic instrument that has gazed so deeply into the cosmos for more than half a century.

Written by Kovi Rose, PhD candidate in the School of Physics.