A new project at Jodrell Bank proves Cheshire is at the heart of the universe

PUBLISHED: 15:28 07 August 2012 | UPDATED: 15:29 21 September 2017

A new project at Jodrell Bank proves Cheshire is at the heart of the universe

A new project at Jodrell Bank proves Cheshire is at the heart of the universe

The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project underway at Jodrell Bank continues Sir Bernard Lovell's lasting legacy in Cheshire

London may think itself the centre of the universe, but the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project underway at Jodrell Bank indicates that in the coming years it’s Cheshire that will be so – at least in astronomical


“The Square Kilometre Array scheme is a project to build the largest telescope in the world. It is based on the fact that once you get to the size of radio telescope that we have at Jodrell Bank you can’t really go much bigger because of material limitations, so what you do is build

an array of telescopes, a group that you then connect up so they behave

like one huge telescope,” explains Teresa Anderson, Director of Jodrell

Bank’s Discovery Centre.

Teresa is a graduate of The University of Manchester’s School of Physics and Astronomy who was happy her career path brought her back to the area in 2006. She was soon involved in the bid process: “To become the UK candidate for the headquarters we went up against Oxford and Cambridge and various other colleagues, and we won.

Then the UK went up against Germany, the USA, the Netherlands and various others in the international competition to have the headquarters... and the UK won - so the international HQ of this telescope is being built as we speak at Jodrell Bank.”

Northwest construction company Turners is undertaking the work, with the building planned to be ready this autumn, and no delays expected: “One of the reasons we got the SKA project was because of what we had done here already with the Discovery Centre. We got the funding in May 2010, broke ground that October, and opened April 2011.

The fact we managed that proved we could deliver the project on time,”

says Teresa. The radio-telescopes will be sited in Southern Africa or Australasia, away from human habitation and thus radio frequency interference. It can’t have hurt that Jodrell Bank is already running a British network of telescopes, Merlin, though that has seven as compared to 3000 for SKA, which will be the largest and most sensitive radio-telescope in the world.

“This is a one-and-a-half billion Euro project, so it’s massive,” continues Teresa: “There will be 65 internationally renowned research scientists and engineers coming to this site, a new group of staff. It is very similar in a way to the Large Hadron Collider, in that it’s a huge international collaboration. Last time I looked there were 17 countries involved - every time you check there are more - and 30-odd institutes and universities

collaborating on it. It’s a great coup for Cheshire!”

Some fundamental questions about our universe could be answered by the team sifting and interpreting the unimaginable amounts of data produced by the array: the nature of gravity, the formation of the first stars, what creates the massive magnetic fields in space, and what dark energy is. And one of interest to everyone on the planet – is humankind alone in the universe? The scientists are not without poetry, dubbing the effort ‘a discovery machine.’

As a landmark project the SKA scheme could provide a focus and flag-bearer for hi-tech in Cheshire: “This network is going to have

thousands of telescopes so you can imagine the scale when already at

Jodrell Bank we have the equivalent of the entire internet traffic of the UK coming in daily. It is going to be a vast amount of data so it is going to

be very much like the LHC [Large Hadron Collider].

“There are of course a number of challenges associated with this: it will push the boundaries in several ways – optic fibre cabling to transport the data to the coordination centre, and the power supplies to these  telescopes out in the desert for example. And there are all sorts of other quite complex technical challenges that will really push forward  technology,” Teresa says.

Perhaps typically for Cheshire even though this is a truly mindblowing

project, word about it is taking time to filter out. But given there were 100,000 visitors to the Discovery Centre in its first year there will be plenty of messengers. Against the backdrop of the grade I listed telescope, and taking place in the beautiful grounds of the site, the 2012 concerts here headlined by Paul Weller and (rather fittingly given their Build a Rocket Boys! album) Elbow will bring many more.

“One of the reasons we got the SKA contract was that we have such a brilliant outreach project, bringing great engagement with the public.

One of the things they [those deciding on the project’s home] thought was great was that we can engage the public with science here in a way that the other sites couldn’t really,” concludes Teresa. In what some have called the century of the geek, that cannot be bad for Jodrell Bank’s home county. 

Big numbers for a huge project

The data produced by the SKA dishes will be equivalent to 10 times the global internet


The Square Kilometre Array takes its name from the combined surface area of the 3000

dishes – roughly 1,000,000 square metres

The super-computer handling the SKA data will perform 1018 operations per second

The optical-fibre required for the project could wrap twice around the world

There will be some 3000 dishes in the telescope, plus two other types of receiver

The furthest dishes in the five spiral arms comprising the telescope will be 3000km or more from the centre

On a daily basis raw data will be collected by the SKA that could fill 15,000,000 64 gigabyte i-Pods.

Jodrell Bank in brief

The Observatory is in Lower Withington, at the centre of a diamond whose points are

Wilmslow, Macclesfield, Congleton and Middlewich.

Bernard Lovell first used the site for astrophysical research in 1945, using ex-military WWII equipment

The main telescope, The Lovell, began construction in 1952 and went live on October 12 1957

The Lovell is the third-largest fully-steerable telescope in the world

There are three other telescopes on site now

Jodrell Bank is the UK’s national facility for radio astronomy

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