Jodrell Bank in international £1.3 billion project

PUBLISHED: 01:16 21 June 2011 | UPDATED: 15:28 21 September 2017

The Lovell telescope is now at the centre of global astrophysics research. Photograph by Anthony Holloway

The Lovell telescope is now at the centre of global astrophysics research. Photograph by Anthony Holloway

Jodrell Bank, Cheshire's most famous landmark, is to become the centre of an international £1.3 billion project WORDS BY RAY KING

The control room at Jodrell Bank. Photograph by Anthony HollowayThe control room at Jodrell Bank. Photograph by Anthony Holloway

The internationally recognised landmark towering almost 300ft above the Cheshire plain has been an icon of the Space Age for more than 50 years. But from next year the University of Manchester’s Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics will take on a dramatic new role.

A massive telescope, enabling astronomers to ‘see’ farther out into the universe and farther back in time than ever before will be designed there by an international team of scientists and engineers.

As recently as 2008, the future of the giant Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank, near Goostrey, was cast into doubt by constant funding worries over cuts in the science budget. But now the observatory is once again at the centre of global astrophysics research – selected as the headquarters for a £1.3 billion project to build the world’s biggest radio telescope.

The so-called ‘Square Kilometre Array’ (SKA) – a vast network of thousands of radio telescopes on which work is expected to begin in a desert in either Australia or southern Africa in 2016 – will be designed and operated from Jodrell Bank. The HQ will be set up in 2012 and the team of specialists will grow from 40 at present to 100.

View of the arboretum with the radiotelscope in the backgroundView of the arboretum with the radiotelscope in the background

The announcement that Jodrell Bank had pulled off this hugely important scientific coup came within days of a brand new £3 million Discovery Centre being unveiled at the observatory that will attract tens of thousands of visitors a year.

Dr Tim O’Brien, Reader in Astrophysics at Jodrell Bank, whose research concentrates on the study of exploding stars using telescopes around the world and in space, working across the spectrum from radio waves to X-rays, says the two dramatic developments are linked.

‘By selecting Jodrell Bank as the headquarters for this truly global project involving partners from 20 countries, the international committee has not only recognised our considerable experience in this particular field of science, but also our long record of successful public outreach.

‘We were thrilled by the announcement. The influx of new blood and different skills will be a shot in the arm for the entire facility.’

Dr Tim O’Brien, Reader in Astrophysics at Jodrell Bank, says the new development is thrillingDr Tim O’Brien, Reader in Astrophysics at Jodrell Bank, says the new development is thrilling

Since grabbing the world’s attention by tracking the Russians’ Sputnik 1 - the first man-made satellite to orbit the earth – within months of becoming operation in 1957, Jodrell Bank has constantly sought to share and explain the telescope’s pioneering discoveries with the public. As the SKA begins to reveal how planets and galaxies are born, give clues to the nature of dark energy and help to detect signs of alien life, the new Discovery Centre is poised to explain the cutting-edge astronomical research.

Dr O’Brien, based at Jodrell Bank since 1999, said: ‘Though the SKA will not be complete until the mid-2020s, we will be able to receive data before then because it will be made up of very many individual elements linked by optical fibres. The name refers to the size of the telescope – dishes with an area totalling one square kilometre, the equivalent of 200 Lovell Telescopes, but spaced out over an area the size of a continent. It will enable us to collect more radio waves and see fainter images, therefore from farther away.

‘And the greater the distance you can see means that we are observing events farther back in time. It becomes like a time machine looking back before the first stars and galaxies were born to the dark age of the universe.  That’s a hole in our understanding that we hope to fill.’

The SKA should offer 50 times greater sensitivity and 100 times better resolution than any radio telescope array on earth so far.

Jodrell Bank’s new Discovery Centre replaces the original visitor facility demolished in 2003. It comprises a Planet Pavilion which includes a glass-walled cafe overlooking the Lovell Telescope and a Space Pavilion for events and exhibitions.

Its director, Dr Teresa Anderson said the aim of the centre is to educate visitors about the live science carried out by the Jodrell Bank team.  n

Jodrell Bank facts

Three fields at Jodrell Bank were bought by the University of Manchester’s Horticultural Botany department in 1939.

The first use of the site for astrophysics was in 1945, when Bernard Lovell wished to use some equipment left over from World War II to investigate cosmic rays.

The ‘Mark I’ telescope, now known as the Lovell Telescope, was the largest steerable dish radio telescope in the world, 76.2 metres (250 ft) in diameter, when it was completed in 1957; it is now the third largest. Part of the gun turret mechanisms from the battleships HMS Revenge and Royal Sovereign were reused in the motor system for the telescope.

The telescope was the only one in the world able to track Sputnik's booster rocket by radar in 1957. In February 1966, Jodrell Bank tracked the USSR unmanned moon lander Luna 9 and listened in on its facsimile transmission of photographs from the moon's surface. The photos were sent to the British press and published before the Soviets themselves had made the photos public.

Despite the publicity surrounding the telescope's tracking of space probes, this took up only a fraction of its observing time, with the remainder used for scientific observations. These include using radar to measure the distance to the Moon and to Venus, observations of astrophysical masers around star-forming regions and giant stars and observations of pulsars.

The Multi-Element Radio Linked Interferometer Network (MERLIN), an array of radio telescopes spread across England and the Welsh borders, is run from Jodrell Bank.

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