Jodrell Bank Observatory, England’s First “Proper” Space Observatory

Lovell TelescopeJodrell Bank Observatory
Mike Peel; Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics, University of Manchester. ~

With all the recent news stories on UFOs and aliens, I thought it might be interesting to explore one of the early observatories. — that of Jodrell Bank.

The observatory was originally called the Jodrell Bank Experimental Station. It is situated west of Manchester and was England’s first “proper” space observatory. Begun shortly after World War II, in 1947, by Dr. Bernard Lovell of Manchester University, Jodrell Bank was designed to study cosmic rays. Coming in at 218 feet (66 m), Jodrell Bank was the largest radio telescope in the world, at that time.

Bernard, who was a radio astronomer, thought the study of cosmic rays was a natural jump after he had spent time during WWII working on radar project.

The Lovell Telescope is the main one for the observatory. Coming in at 250 feet (76 m), it is the third largest steerable radio telescope in the world. Research involving quasars, pulsars, gravitational rays, meteoroids, etc., aided the probes throughout the Space Age. Jodrell Bank serves as the base for MERLIN, the Multi-Element Radio Linked Interferometer Network.

Before working with radar during World War II, Lovell was employed in the Physics Department at Manchester University. He was using a Wilson Cloud Chamber to study cosmic rays.

Sir Bernard Lovell ~ Jodrell Bank, University of Manchester ~

“Whilst working on the development of radar systems during the war he became aware of sporadic echoes that were being detected by our early warning radar systems. He wondered if these might be caused by the passage of a cosmic ray particle through the atmosphere and so, when the war ended, he acquired some army radar equipment which he set up in the quadrangle outside the Schuster Laboratory in Manchester. Interference from the trams along Oxford Road made him seek a site well away from the centre of Manchester. He found that the Botany Department had some land in Cheshire at a place called Jodrell Bank – a bank being a small river valley cutting across the Cheshire Plain, this one being named after the Jaudrell family.” [The History of Jodrell Bank]

There was some disappointment with the first observations made, for, instead of cosmic ray particles entering the atmosphere, Lovell and his students heard echoes from the plasma trail of a meteor as it burned up in the atmosphere. Imagine hearing a “shooting star”? That is something that would interest me. This early experiment demonstrated that many meteors are part of the “dust tail” of a comet.

In 1947, Lovell’s team built a 218 foot parabolic reflecting aerial (a radio telescope) in the adjoining field to the Jodrell Bank Experimental Station. “The wire mesh that reflected the radio signals to a focal pint 150ft above the ground was suspended from a ring of scaffold poles. You can just make out the telescope to the left of the large building in the centre right that housed the diesel generators which provided power for the site. By tilting the position of the mast the beam could be swung to allow different parts of the sky to be scanned as the earth’s rotation brought it overhead.

“The telescope made many important discoveries, particular among them being the detection of radio noise from the Great Nebula in Andromeda – the first time that a known extragalactic radio source had been detected – and the detection of the remains of the supernova of 1572, usually known as Tycho’s supernova, which does not have any obvious visual remnant.” [The History of Jodrell Bank] Nearly 64 years ago, the rocket that sent Sputnik into space was the first intercontinental ballistic missile ever launched. The (barely finished) Lovell radio telescope at Jodrell Bank Observatory in Cheshire was the only instrument with the scale and power to potentially track it. [Check out the video on BBC News that explains what happened and how the British played a key part in the Cold War.]

Other Sources:

Bernard Lovell

Jodrell Bank – Anatomy of a Radio Telescope

Jodrell Bank to play key part in creating world’s largest radio telescope

The Team that Tracked Sputnik

About reginajeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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