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Jodrell Bank Observatory, home of British radio astronomy

Throughout our history, the sky and stars have fascinated humankind. Through creation myth and astrology to optical astronomy, we have learned a great deal about our universe, and our place in it. As optical telescopes probed the visible spectrum and gave us images of distant stars and galaxies, so radio astronomy has revealed greater wonders even than that. Jodrell Bank has a unique place in this history of our search for knowledge of the stars and galaxies.

The site began its rise to prominence in 1945, when Bernard Lovell started carrying out research into echoes he had discovered whilst working on radar. He had obtained some Army radar equipment and begun work on cosmic ray detection in Manchester, but began looking for a quieter place to work, and found that the University of Manchester Botany Department had some land in Cheshire, 20 miles south of Manchester, away from the electrical interference of the city.

Jodrell Bank Experimental Station

Lovell began in December 1945, using what equipment he had, and discovered many more echoes, not, as he thought from cosmic rays, but rather from meteors. He and his team slowly built up the Jodrell Bank Experimental Station in the field next to the Botany Department's huts. The first major development was the building of the Transit Telescope - a 218 foot (67 metre) parabolic reflector. Completed in 1947, it consisted of a wire mesh grid with a movable focus point, mounted on a 150 foot (46 metre) pole. This was, at the time, the largest radio telescope anywhere, and was instrumental in many discoveries, not least of which was the detection of a radio source from the Great Nebula in Andromeda (the first known radio source outside our own galaxy) and the radio signal from the supernova of 1572 (known as Tycho's supernova).

Whilst this was an oustanding achievement, Lovell had greater plans. The TT was limited, in that it was only useful in detecting signals from almost overhead. He wanted a telescope that was fully steerable, hence able to survey all the visible sky. Once he had the funds, he worked with engineer Charles Husband to design a 250ft (76m) mesh telescope. In 1951, however, the discovery of the 21cm Hydrogen Line meant that change was required. The shorter wavelengths now needed required a solid, rather than wire surface. Building began in 1952, and after some difficulties, the telescope was ready for trials in 1957, the year of Sputnik I's launch.

The technology was a strange mix - controlled by an electro-mechanical analogue computer, the Mark I (or Lovell Telescope, as it is sometimes known) moved on gear racks taken from the HMS Royal Sovereign and HMS Revenge. Swords into ploughshares, driven by budgetary need. Tracking the Russian Sputnik was great publicity, and although it had not been designed for it, the Mark I was ideal for tracking satellites, uniquely so at that time. Payments from that work, and a donation from Lord Nuffield and the Nuffield Foundation meant that the debts incurred in building could be cleared.

The tremendous success of the Mark I (including much work leading to the discovery of quasars) led to funding being approved for another telescope (The Mark II!), completed in 1964. Another parabolic reflector, it had an elliptical shape, similar to that of the Goonhilly receiver and measuring 90 feet (28 metres) by 81 feet (25 meters). Controlled by a Ferranti Argus 100 digital computer, this was state of the art, and was responsible for detecting the first photographs from the Soviet Luna 9 moon probe.

The 1970s saw an extension of Jodrell Bank's work, as part of a larger network of telescopes, in radio interferometry, leading to the development of the MTRLI (Multi Telescope Radio Linked Interferometer) and MERLIN (Multi-Element Radio Linked Interferometer Network) arrays, used improve the resolution of the radio "image" to be received. It is also part of the VLBI (Very Large Baseline Interferometry) project.

Down to Earth

Work continues at Jodrell bank, both in research and education. As other telescopes have been built elsewhere around the country, the importance of Jodrell Bank has not lessened - it now acts as the centre for collecting and collating information from many sites, and still remains central to radio astronomy in Britain. The Science Centre attracts people from around the world to see, not just the telescopes, but the planetarium and exhibitions.

Jodrell Bank is more than just about astronomy, however. Its roots as a centre for botany study are betrayed by the Arboretum, which hosts environmental events, trails and educational exhibits. 35 acres of woodland gives visitors access to some 2000 species of trees. Jodrell Bank connects us with the now, our need to be aware of our terrestrial surroundings, to the future, for who knows what our study of the universe may uncover?

Encyclopædia Britannica
A Place for Everything (and Everything in its Place) 53:13:36N, 2:18:04W
Aerial photo at http://tinyurl.com/c6dry

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