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Wednesday, 26 November 1986
Page: 3753

Mr ROBERT BROWN —My question, which is directed to the Minister for Science, refers to the recent report about the discovery of a nova, or an exploding star, near the pointers to the Southern Cross. It has been suggested that that may be the first discovery of its kind made from Australia. Will the Minister explain the significance of the discovery? Does this discovery confirm that Australian astronomy, under the Hawke Government, is maintaining and expanding its reputation as being among the world's best?

Mr BARRY JONES —A nova is an exploding star; the Opposition has had a few on that side of the House. The latest one was first observed by Mr Rob McNaught, a satellite camera operator at Siding Spring on Sunday, when its brightness increased by a factor--

Mr Hunt —At Coonabarabran, in my electorate.

Mr BARRY JONES —Exactly, in the electorate of the Deputy Leader of the National Party. Its brightness increased by a factor of up to 10,000 times more than previously observed. On a clear night it can be easily observed with the naked eye. For those honourable members who want to look for it tonight, it is about 3 degrees true north of Alpha Centauri, the brighter of the pointers, and the one further from the Southern Cross. We await further details about its size and distance-both very vast-which will be of international interest.

A nova, which can be readily observed, explodes approximately once every 20 years. But in this case, the new nova is the brightest new star seen for 11 years. On the down side it is already starting to fade. The newspaper reports are incorrect; it is not the first nova observed from Australia. In the nineteenth century, John Tebbutt, the New South Wales astronomer, whose lugubrious features appear on our $100 note, discovered many new stars, including several novas. The most famous of all novae, the Crab Nebula, was so bright in the year 1054 that it could be seen in daylight and it was written up by Chinese and Japanese astronomers. Now it is a tiny fuzz south of Orion, very hard to pick up even with powerful binoculars. The nova explosion reminds us that the universe is in a constant state of change. It is not in a stable state.

Mr Hawke —Like the Liberal Party.

Mr BARRY JONES —Like the Liberal Party; it is not in a stable state. It also reminds us that we are a very tiny part of an almost unimaginably vast, inconceivably ancient and mysterious universe and that we know very little about how it works. We can be extremely proud of the enormous contribution to world knowledge made by Australian astronomers. The completion of the Australian Telescope in 1988 and the extensions of the Tidbinbilla dish will add to our capacity. The observatory at Siding Spring, including the Anglo-Australian Telescope and the Schmidt telescope, is often regarded as the most productive in the world. The most distant observed object in the universe, a quasar, was observed there. It was estimated to be 1014 light years away, that is, the distance that light travels in 100 million million years.

Mr McGauran —Come on, Barry!

Mr BARRY JONES —Well, this raises serious questions, especially for Queensland National Party members, about whether it makes much sense to teach children in textbooks that the universe was created in six 24-hour days and is less than 6,000 years old. Astronomy presents a completely different perspective to the issues that preoccupy our Opposition-the appeal to immediate self-interest, elevating selfishness into a moral issue, the fringe benefits tax, playing personality politics and never looking beyond the ends of their noses.