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What a dish

Phil Griffin crosses time and space to sing a hymn to Jodrell Bank

Published on October 5th 2007.

What a dish

There is a certain sort of romance, for the space age and its expanding horizons, and for the buccaneers of space voyaging. The Visitors Centre hums with enthusiasm for the story it has to tell. On top of the science and technology, above the roll call of Sputniks, Luniks, and Pioneer probes, is another craft entirely, the spy-craft of Le Carre and Deighton.

Lovell’s telescope, the eye-wateringly expensive astronomer’s dream made real on the Cheshire plain, was hot.

Here, just outside Goostrey on the Cheshire plain, 50 years ago today, the Space Age witnessed its first Cold War shiver. Bernard Lovell, astronomer of Manchester University, effectively told the Americans they had just lost the Space Race.

His brand new Mk 1 telescope was the only instrument on Earth, at the time, capable of tracking Sputnik 1’s booster rocket. Any old radio ham could hear Sputnik’s signal. You could almost hear it if you stood in your garden. But Bernard Lovell eventually found the booster rocket eight days later, hurtling over the Lake District at five miles per second. And the booster rocket happened to be a modified Intercontinental Ballistic Missile. Lovell’s telescope, the eye-wateringly expensive astronomer’s dream made real on the Cheshire plain, was hot.

The story is fantastic. Let's get present tense. For a decade and more the world is obsessed by the Space Race, which is war by other, more comic book, means. America and Russia are, effectively, aiming missiles at the moon. The Soviets are better at it. Lunik 2 is the first to hit, on 12 September 1959. A month later Lunik 3 travels around the far side of the moon. It makes strange noises. Journalists are listening at Jodrell Bank. Someone suggests he knows what it is. Newspaper offices transmit photographs to each other by Telefax machines. One is brought to Jodrell Bank from the Daily Express office in Manchester. As soon as it is plugged in a picture of the surface of the moon is churned out. The Russians are faxing from the moon. The image appears on the front page of the Express the next morning, days before the Soviets release pictures.

Dr Alistair Gunn, of Jodrell Bank Observatory, tells me these stories. He has written the 50th anniversary brochure, and is steeped in the history of this place and its great patron, Sir Bernard Lovell, now 94 and happily still around and happily still around to talk up the achievements of this satellite of the University of Manchester.

Alistair confirms stories of American Air Force colonels in the night, of RAF Radar operators in cognito, Marxist sympathisers in the control room, and MI6 officers behind locked doors. Towering above the café where we are talking, filling the windows with its light reflecting white steel frame, 3200 tonnes of it, is the Lovell telescope, resurfaced in 2002, still the third biggest in the world. Yes, its name was made, or rather the name of Jodrell Bank and images of the telescope were made during the hot years of the space race. Yet all that rocket chasing has only ever been 1% of the scientific work the telescope does.

Quasars, Pulsars and Double Pulsars are amongst the things that the observatory observes. I have no doubt that the work that continues here is among the most vital and valuable of any university anywhere. Frankly, that is not why I’m a regular visitor. I first came in the 1970’s. I watched a group of school kids being led around the site. “Mister”, said one lad, “how powerful is your telescope?” “Does your mum have one of those electric lighters for the gas cooker?” “Yep” said the questioner. “Well, if your mum was using it on the moon, my telescope would know.” “…wow”, said the boy.

Nowadays, I gather that if I was using my mobile on Mars, the Lovell telescope would know. That, I’m afraid, is about the level of my scientific wonder. However, it is that level of sensitivity, combined with the sight of the mighty thing itself, and the quietly grazing cattle in the fields of neighbouring Bridge farm, and the speeding intercity trains on the beautiful brick viaduct nearby, and the canopy of English woodland that Lovell’s telescope rises from that makes this place and this unique structure as captivating to me as the Taj Mahal.

On Friday and Saturday nights this week, the Lovell Telescope will fix its sights on the horizon. Wind permitting, the 250ft dish will be in its vertical position. For two nights only it becomes the biggest cinema screen in the world, showing a programme of its own history, to a special soundtrack, to a promenading audience of picnickers. These special 50th birthday events are sold out. Happily, I’ve got a ticket.

I don’t mention the Taj Mahal lightly. That building is well seen by moonlight, presenting its dome to the stars. I’ve been to Jodrell Bank at night too. As the great white dish silently tracks the night sky and freezes information that has taken millions of years to cross the universe and arrive at this earth bound place of fields and trees, I am awestruck. Sir Bernard Lovell and engineer Charles Husband created a very great and important building, and one of the true icons of the twentieth century.

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Steve ZodiacOctober 5th 2007.

I thought that Jodrell Bank's role in receiving the first photographs of the Moon's backside from Lunik-3 had been Stalinistically air-brushed out of history. (As indeed was the achievement of Helen Sharman, the first Briton in space [and a woman too], presumably because they were Russian, rather than American achievements.) When I last visited Jodrell Bank the exhibition area was cluttered with manky, yellowing old models of the 1960s American Apollo Programme, i.e., nothing at all to do with Jodrell Bank or proper astronomy.

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