Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Stars lose their lustre

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BRISBANE -- That aphorism about most of us being in the gutter while a rare few gaze at the stars is having a beautiful echo in Australia.

Earlier this month, the nation unveiled one of the world's most advanced telescopes to probe the origins of the stars.

As the rest us pondered the fate of a popular radio star who had gained 30 kilograms in six months, scientists began tracking down radio signals sent before Earth existed.

As we fussed over a story involving a shock-jock insulting the prime minister, they went searching for 700,000 new super-galaxies.

And as we pored over sexual text messages related to a tawdry harassment case in the federal Speaker's office they pursued one of humanity's most ancient questions: "Is anyone out there?''

The 30 dishes in a remote area of Western Australia comprising the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder project represent one of the most powerful radio-astronomy instruments on the planet.

In one day, it can gather more information than exists in the U.S. Library of Congress. It will help scientists conduct an extraterrestrial census of galaxies billions of light years away and inform studies on magnetic fields, black holes and "theories of cosmic magnetism.''

If all those intriguing machinations of the macrocosm fascinate you, don't expect to reserve a table at this restaurant at the end of the universe any time soon. More than 350 international researchers have booked the place out five years in advance.

Sadly, it will mean bugger all to the huge majority of Australians who'll be preoccupied with who gets evicted from Big Brother on television.

Australians are no longer enamoured with outer space -- the cosmic fantasies of the '60s fading like an aging Aquarian's brain synapses.

Our reality version of Star Wars began with Sputnik's low Earth orbit in 1957, followed by John Glenn's drive-by in Friendship 7 over Western Australia one night in 1962, charming Perth by labelling it "the city of lights."

The finale in the series was Apollo 11 and the climatic scene screened on July 21, 1969, when a boot was planted amid the billowing moon dust.

The credits have continued rolling with brave Neil Armstrong's death in August but most of us have left the theatre.

The shuttle, the Russian space station Mir, the whole extraordinary world of satellite communication held some interest but just didn't light up the box office of public interest.

Even the scientific marvel that is Mars Curiosity Rover is just a spinoff. -- R2-D2 does the Sahara Desert.

It's puzzling. Australia, as with 55 other countries including Canada, plays an important role in space exploration, and most of us have at least a vague appreciation of its benefits.

There's the GPS in the car, a better understanding of osteoporosis and the chance of finding, if not extraterrestrial life, at least an extraterrestrial lifeboat if our own planet capsizes.

The federal government still contributes millions of dollars a year to space exploration and Australians Dr. Paul Scully-Power and Andy Thomas travelled into space. Even in the 1969 moon landing, NASA relied heavily on an Australian telescope to relay images back to Earth.

And remember Skylab? That 77-tonne space station orbiting Earth between 1973 and 1979?

Well, it fell on us.

NASA scientists overseeing re-entry aimed for Africa but hit Western Australia. Locals hearing a series of sonic booms one night in 1979 thought the Apocalypse's four horsemen were cantering in through the clouds.

When they realized it was not Judgment Day but junk, the local council at Esperance issued NASA a $400 ticket for littering.

Maybe that the was the beginning of the end of the public's enchantment with space. Technology's Icarus crashes to earth, and gets fined as a joke.

Fortunately, there are scientists still gazing ever upward, still working on answers to the strangest of all questions -- the ones we don't yet know enough to even ask.

Michael Madigan is the Free Press correspondent in Australia. He writes mostly about politics for the Brisbane-based Courier Mail.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 12, 2012 A13

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