Radio telescopes in the movies

You may have noticed that Astronomy Blog has been very quiet recently. That is because I'm incredibly busy right now with important work which is taking up pretty much all my time. I should be back in about two weeks, but in the mean time here is something I wrote back in August that I hadn't got around to posting…

The other day I was talking about using radio telescopes to search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (as you do) and the person I was talking to said "you mean like in that film with whatstheirname". I instantly knew that they were referring to the film Contact starring Jodie Foster. This wasn't because of my amazing mind-reading abilities, but because it is one of a select bunch of films to feature radio telescopes.

As well as Jodie Foster, Contact also starred the NRAO's Very Large Array in New Mexico and the Arecibo dish in Puerto Rico. The VLA is a radio interferometer that simulates the effect of having a radio telescope up to 36 km in diameter and usually studies distant radio galaxies, quasars and that sort of thing. The 305-m Arecibo dish has been used in the past by the SETI Institute to hunt for signals from E.T. but also spends a large portion of its time looking for pulsars. The Arecibo dish also featured in the James Bond film Golden Eye.

Talking of alien life, Jodrell Bank's Lovell telescope briefly featured in the recent Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy below a Vogon spaceship. Although I know that the film-makers shot a scene with Jodrell Bank astronomers trying to make contact with the Vogons (real astronomers were used as background actors) it does not seem to have even made the 'deleted scenes' section on the DVD. The Lovell telescope has also appeared in the British sci-fi classic Dr Who. In one episode, Tom Baker fell to his death from the telescope and regenerated into Peter Davison.

My favourite film containing a radio telescope is The Dish, set at the Parkes 64-m radio telescope in New South Wales, Australia. The film follows the events surrounding the Apollo 11 landing in 1969 from a distinctly Australian point of view. Although many people might think the film slow, I think it is great. It asks one of the great questions of our time: "What's it doing in the middle of a sheep paddock?"

If you know of any other radio telescopes in the movies, add them to the comments below.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Wednesday 21st Sep 2005 (12:22 UTC) | 5 Comments | Permalink

Comments: Radio telescopes in the movies

I love the dish. Being Australian, I didn't think it was slow at all. As to sheep paddocks, that's where they established Canberra, our national capital. When the grazie whose land had been resumed to build Canberra was shown the new Parliment House is comment was "A bloody good sheep paddock ruined".

Posted by Ian Musgrave on Wednesday 21st Sep 2005 (13:42 UTC)

I saw the dish twice in the cinema and I have it on DVD so I have to agree. I didn't think it was slow - I heard some other people say that. Plus, I don't think I spotted any bad astronomy! In real life, the director of the observatory was a Yorkshireman though.

Talking of Canberra, it amazes me how many people in the UK seem to think Sydney is the capital of Australia. I think it may be because European countries have their capitals (due to tradition) in the biggest city, whereas countries like the US and Australia don't. I hasten to add that I have known Canberra was the capital of Australia since about the age of eight - my dad used to test my knowledge of world capitals on the walk to school.

Posted by Stuart on Wednesday 21st Sep 2005 (16:48 UTC)

Talk about timing. I just watched Contact and have the Hitchikers DVD here for the weekend. I saw that when it first aired, watched it every Sunday morning....hmmm dating myself. I'll have to look for The Dish.

Posted by Tom on Thursday 22nd Sep 2005 (23:17 UTC)

The scene in The Dish. The NASA visitor has said something and the Australian astronomer points out to him it is because they are in the southern hemisphere. What was the actual substance of that exchange?


Posted by Tony on Friday 16th Feb 2007 (00:00 UTC)

Tony, I'm actually a very long way from my Dish DVD so I'll have to go from memory and guessing here. The Parkes radio telescope is an altitude-azimuthal mount (like most radio telescopes) which basically means that two sets of motors have to turn to make the dish follow something in the (astronomical) sky. The sky appears to go from east to west (actually the Earth turning) so tracking something near the celestial equator from the northern hemisphere means the dish turns clockwise. From the southern hemisphere the celestial equator is northwards so the dish would turn anti-clockwise to follow something east-west. This would put a change of sign in the tracking rate. Perhaps it is related to that or it could be something more obvious that I've overlooked. When I get back to my DVD in a few weeks I'll watch it again and give a second opinion.

Posted by Stuart on Friday 16th Feb 2007 (23:15 UTC)


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