Stars align for conference

20:45, Jan 31 2013
PIHA CONNECTION: American radio astronomer Miller Goss and Auckland councillor Sandra Coney and American radio astronomer Miller Goss at the plaque unveiling near the Piha radar station in February 2011. A similar plaque will be unveiled at Leigh tomorrow

All the stars are coming out for a radio astronomy conference in Orewa this week.

Professors Sergei Gulyaev and Miller Goss organised the conference to recognise our contributions to early radio astronomy.

Auckland mayor Len Brown will unveil a special plaque at Leigh Marine Laboratory near the Pakiri cliffs tomorrow acknowledging the spot's significance in kickstarting radio astronomy internationally.

Auckland councillor Sandra Coney will show delegates around a Piha radar site on Saturday, with some heading to Norfolk Island the next day for a similar unveiling at the Mt Bates radar site.

That early research led to an explosion of our understanding of the cosmos last century, and was also a part of mankind's first foray on to a foreign world - the moon.

Heavyweights at the Leigh event, hosted by Auckland University's Leigh Marine Laboratory director John Montgomery, will be Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell from Oxford University who discovered pulsars, the most powerful object in the universe, and distinguished Australian radio astronomer Ron Ekers.


A similar plaque was put in place near the old radar station at Piha two years ago.

Visiting American radio astronomer Miller Goss has been the driving force to get the two sites formally recognised. He came to the country five years ago researching a book he is co-writing on Australian radio astronomer John Bolton.

He wanted to find the sites of some important early research in Auckland just after World War II. Professor Goss called on friend Sergei Gulyaev, director of AUT's Institute for Radio Astronomy and Space Research and the Warkworth Observatory, to give him a hand.

After a bit of detective work, including "kidnapping" Leigh librarian Dorothy Cooper off the street to help, they pin-pointed the Pakiri cliff site.

Piha historian and Auckland councillor Sandra Coney helped find the site at Piha, now overgrown and in ruins.

Research at Pakiri and Piha in 1948 helped transform World War II radar technology into radio astronomy.

Radar stations during the war, set up to track aircraft, showed the sun was emitting radio waves. Radar operators on Norfolk Island, one of five radar stations in the Pacific established by the New Zealand Air Force, reported the sun was causing interference or "grassing" on their recordings.

This was called the "Norfolk Island effect" and was of great interest to English woman Elizabeth Alexander, with the then Department of Scientific and Industrial Research in Wellington, who was looking into atmospheric and solar interference with radar.

She found solar interference increased with sunspots.

Other solar observations were then taken at defence radar stations at North Cape, the Whangaparaoa Peninsula, Maunganui Bluff and at Piha.

Ms Alexander's research ended after the war and she returned to England. Many radar stations shut down, with valuable knowledge and skills lost as staff moved on.

In Australia, their research body the CSIR heard about the solar research at Piha and staff started doing research of their own.

The Australians believed finding a new peacetime direction for their technicians and operators was important.

In 1948, Englishman John Bolton, based at the CSIR Radiophysics Laboratory at Dover Heights in Sydney, found several radio emissions coming from the cosmos but couldn't pinpoint them.

The technique he was using needed higher cliffs than the 100 metre Dover Heights cliffs.

Pakiri and Piha, just across the ditch, turned out to fit the bill nicely.

Mr Bolton and colleague New Zealander Gordon Stanley went to Irwin and Elva Greenwood's Pakiri cliff top farm first in 1948. They brought an old army radar trailer to take readings. They came in winter to reduce interference from the sun and took readings at night.

It took six weeks to get all the readings needed. Then it was off to Piha's disused radar station. Here it was much easier and they had their results in just two weeks, returning to Sydney.

One of the sources proved to be the Crab Nebula, a star that exploded in 1054 and recorded by early astronomers around the world. The pair - radar technicians rather than astronomers - were instantly famous.

Student Alan Maxwell visited the pair during their stay in Leigh and finished his thesis at Auckland University on solar radiation the same year, a world first.

Mr Maxwell will also be at the unveiling.

Rodney Times