Our place in the Universe – Visiting Jodrell Bank

It takes 7 hours, and 53 minutes to drive from my house in the South-East of England, to where my parents live in Scotland (non-stop), and I have driven the journey more times than I can count. Around 3 hours, and 49 minutes into my journey, once I have exited the M6 toll road, using the signs for Macclesfield as my starting point, I look to my right in hope of seeing ‘it’, 7.7 miles away on the horizon. However, when I begin to see the signposts for Manchester and Warrington, the M56 and the M60 ring road, I know I have gone to far and I continue onward for the remainder of the drive, already planning, already finessing the details of where to look, and when, on my return drive, therefore increasing the chances of seeing it.

What is ‘it?’

It, is Jodrell Bank. Jodrell Bank is home to the world-famous Mark 1 Radio Observatory, or Lovell Telescope. 76.2 metres (250ft) in diameter, it has a mass of 3200 tonnes, has a maximum height above the ground of 89.0 metres, and has a elevation axis height of 50.5 metres, and it dominates the horizon.

Why do we look to the horizon? It is something so simple, and yet so profound. We start at point A, and look to get to point B. What makes people curious? What makes us want to explore the unknown?

Curiousity is by definition a need, thirst or desire for knowledge, and is the motivational prerequisite for exploratory behaviour. The allure of the horizon is more than just a destination. It is an extendable experience, a journey fraught with risk and reward, unpredictable twists, guaranteed obstacles, and surprising results.

On this particular drive North of the border, 3 hours and 40 minutes into my journey, I exit the M6 and head East towards Jodrell Bank, on the horizon.

Jodrell Bank is in fact, a radio telescope, not an optical one. It works by detecting extremely faint radio signals coming from objects such as galaxies, black holes, and exploded stars. Sir Bernard Lovell (1913-2012) was the Founder and first Director of the Jodrell Bank Observatory. Lovell worked in the cosmic ray research team at the University of Manchester until the outbreak of the Second World War, during which he worked for the Telecommunications Research Establishment (TRE) developing radar systems to be installed in aircraft. The TRE was the main United Kingdom research and development organisation for radio navigation, radar, infra-red detection for heat seeking missiles, and related work for the Royal Air Force (RAF) during World War II and the years that followed.

At the end of the Second World War, Lovell attempted to continue his studies of cosmic rays with an ex-military radar detector unit, but suffered so much background interference from the electric trams on Manchester’s Oxford Road, that he decided to move his equipment to a more remote location, one which was free from such electrical interference, 25 miles outside of the city. Lovell first arrived to Jodrell Bank in 1945, which was an outpost of the university’s botany department.


image credit: University of Manchester

Lovell’s main research was transient radio echoes, and in the course of his experiments, he was able to show that radar echoes could be obtained from daytime meteor showers as they entered the Earth’s atmosphere and ionised the surrounding air.

During the Winter of 1948/49, Lovell began work on designing a large radio telescope that could be pointed at any part of the sky. When Lovell first proposed building the telescope in 1948, Lovell estimated that the initial plans and cost of construction would be £60,000. However, when construction began in 1950, a much more ‘realistic’ cost of £333,000 was agreed upon, to be shared equally between the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research and the Nuffield Foundation. Construction began in 1952 but engineering problems, strikes, bureaucratic delays, increasing raw material prices led to costs spiralling to £700,000.


image credit: Cheshirelife

The entire project itself was even the subject of heated debates in the British Parliament, with a discussion taking place whether Lovell should face possible imprisonment for the alleged overspending of public money.

The telescope became operational in mid-1957, still heavily mired in controversy.


image credit: The Engineer

However, later that very same year, on the 4th of October 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial satellite. The first act of the newly-built telescope was to use radar to detect, and then successfully track Sputnik’s booster rocket (a intercontinental ballistic missile); which it did, first locating it just before midnight on 12 October 1957. It was the only instrument in the World capable of doing so. Besieged by journalists and television crews, Jodrell Bank Observatory became World-famous overnight, and all was forgiven. In the following years, between the 11th of March and the 12th of June 1960, it successfully tracked the United States’ NASA-launched Pioneer 5 probe, even sending commands to the probe that included the command for it to separate from its carrier rocket and turn on its more powerful transmitter when the probe was 8 million miles away. It received data from the probe, again the only telescope in the world capable of doing so. In February 1966, Jodrell Bank was asked by the Soviet Union to track its unmanned moon lander Luna 9 and record on its facsimile transmission, photographs from the moon’s surface.

Tracking space probes only took a fraction of the Lovell telescope’s observing time with the remainder used for scientific observations including using radar to measure the distance to the moon and to Venus; observations of astrophysical masers around star-forming regions and giant stars; observations of pulsars (including the discovery of millisecond pulsars and the first pulsar in a globular cluster); observations of quasars and gravitational lenses (including the detection of the first gravitational lens and the first Einstein ring). Jodrell Bank continues to look back in time to this day.

I park my car outside the Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre just before opening, and the sky is a dull grey and white opaque snow sheet. Silent puffs of falling white, frigid, falling slowly, drifting down, the Lovell Telescope is barely visible in the snow. But it’s there.


image credit: pcdphotography

The World is silent in the snow, with the landscape transformed into monochrome having snowed continuously for the previous 24 hours. Seemingly in slow motion, life begins to show. The door to the Discovery Centre is unlocked, opened, and I’m greeted with a smile from a surprised employee having seen that I’d made it through the previous night’s weather to pay them a visit. I am the sole visitor on-site that day.

Before I begin my tour, I am informed that the Lovell Telescope is so powerful that it could pick up the signal from a mobile phone on Mars, so visitors and staff are required to switch off their mobile phones (or set them to flight mode) when on the grounds of the Observatory, to avoid their signal interfering with the research. Which I do.

The Planetary Pavilion is where the day of discovery begins for all visitors and where I begin my visit by exploring our place in the universe, in the first gallery. Its centrepiece is an astounding clockwork Orrery – a working scale model of our own solar system – the largest of its kind in the World. If you’re lucky (due to the numerous amout of school children queuing to do so on a usual weekday) you will be able to turn the handle that makes the planets orbit the Sun overhead. I was, due to the weather, and I did.


image credit: pcdphotography

Leaving the Planetary Pavilion, I follow the path around the Lovell telescope, approximately 20m from the telescope’s outer railway, to the Space Pavilion exhibition centre, where visitors can discover how Jodrell Bank scientists use radio telescopes to learn more about distant objects in space.


image credit: pcdphotography/Jodrell Bank/University of Manchester

Entering the Space Pavilion, situated almost under the shadow of the Lovell Telescope itself, you are met with a detailed explanation of how the telescope works:

The Dish collects the radio waves that arrive form outer space. The bigger the dish, the more radio waves are collected, and a bigger dish can therefore detect fainter objects. The Dish is a carefully constructed paraboloid, and when it collects the radio waves, it reflects the radio waves in a way that concentrates them into a very small are at the top of the central tower called the focus. How the focus works:

The ‘feed’ channels the radio waves into the receiver


The air is pumped out of the ‘vacuum can’ so that it cannot conduct heat. Just as a vacuum flask keeps the heat, this lets Jodrell Bank keep the receiver cold.


The ‘radiation shield’ blocks any thermal radiation from the outer vacuum can and stops the receiver warming up.


Inside the ‘receiver body’ the radio waves are turned into an electrical signal. This signal is amplified by electronics which are cooled to about -250 C


The ‘cold head’ is a refrigerator which continually compresses and then expands helium gas, cooling the receiver. This reduces the noise in the electronics allowing the University of Manchester to detect the extremely faint signals arriving from the deepest depths of outer space.


image credits: pcdphotography

When electrical signals from the receiver arrive in the Control Building the are digitalised and stored on computer hard drives. It can take a team of scientists weeks or even months to analyse the data from observations which lasted only a few hours. Astronomers are interested in the strength of the signal (it’s brightness), how it changes with time and how it depends on the exact frequency in the radio spectrum. They can also make images of the invisible radio sky by combining signals from the Lovell Telescope with other received at the same time by other radio telescopes in the e-MERLIN array or the European VLBI Network.


image credit: pcdphotography/Jodrell Bank/University of Manchester

Jodrell Bank is a key part of an International network of astronomical observations. In the UK, the ‘e-MERLIN’ program is an array of seven radio telescopes spread across 134 miles. Astronomers come from all over the World to use the e-MERLIN array, and in turn, UK scientists make observations using telescopes in places ranging from the Australian Bush, to one of the driest places on Earth, the Atacama desert in Chile (which I shall be visiting in the Summer of 2019).

Within the Space Pavilion you can listen to the sound of the Big Bang, visit a ‘film pod’ for a rolling programme of short films, animation and vintage footage about Jodrell Bank itself. How the universe begun? What is a black hole? And what does the Lovell Telescope observe? Well, to answer the last question in particular; Pulsars were discovered in 1967 by Jocelyn Bell Burnell who was a post-graduate student at Cambridge University. The Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank proved ideal for studying pulsars and has been observing them ever since. When the regular pulsing signal was first discovered, some wondered if it might be a signal from an alien civilisation. In fact, when the first pulsars were detected, it was named LGM-1: Little Green Man 1. When other pulsars were detected, it quickly became clear they were naturally occurring objects. (What is a pulsar? A pulsar is thought to be a rapidly rotating neutron star, that emits regular pulses of radio waves and other electromagnetic radiation at rates of up to one thousand pulses per second.)

The search and discovery of exoplanets has been a recent main stay of scientific research at Jodrell Bank, and the Space Pavilion holds an array of hands-on interactive experiences to help show you how they do it. They observe what’s called the ‘Doppler Wobble’, where planets tug on their parent star as they move in orbit, causing the star to ‘wobble’. This happens because both objects are orbiting their common centre of mass, which is like a ‘balancing point’. As the star orbits, it repeatedly moves towards and then away from us. The Doppler effect shifts its light towards the blue and then the red, giving away the presence of an unseen orbiting planet. As Jodrell Bank measures the amount a star wobbles, astronomers can find out the mass of a planet and its distance from the star when it passes through the red or blue Doppler light.


image credit: pcdphotography


image credit: Superwasp

Leaving the Space Pavilion, I can feel the tarmac path beneath my feet that’s hidden under several inches of snow, and I following it, walking the path around the Lovell telescope that is situated only a few feet from the telescope’s outer railway, stopping-by each of the eleven information board explain how the telescope works and the research that is done with it.

By now the fog has risen and is now crowning the dish, the telescope seems no more a soulless thing. The immense, huge, gigantic, colossal Lovell Telescope breaths and hums. A presence enormous and austere, its grandeur in its mass, it moves and it turns, as it looks into the Universe as a cycloptic radio eye. My eyes trace the direction of the central tower into the sky, imagining what it might be looking at.

thumbnail_IMG_1463image credit: pcdphotography


image credit: pcdphotography

From this place, the observational pathway, you can see the University of Manchester research laboratories, which is the place of work for astronomers and engineers from the University’s Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics, and the Control Room, where all the Jodrell Bank radio telescopes are controlled and monitored from. Here, there is a controller on duty 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The 42ft telescope, which is used to monitor pulsars – in particular the pulsar at the heart of the Crab Nebula. The 7 metre telescope, which is used by the University of Manchester’s undergraduates in the School of Physics & Astronomy to study the Milky Way and other nearby galaxies. The Microwave Tower, a 150ft high tower that holds the microwave radio links to four of their remote e-MERLIN telescopes (these links have now been replaced with underground optical fibres). And the Mark 2 telescope, a radio telescope that was built in 1964 and was the first in the World to be controlled by computer.

As the telescope begins to move vertically, entirely supported on giant bearings at the top of the two towers, I discover that the giant gear racks at the tops of the two towers on the Lovell telescope, were recycled from 15-inch gun turrets on the battleships HMS Royal Sovereign and HMS Revenge. Beneath the bowl, there a thin stabilising girder which carries no weight, but is there to prevent the bowl oscillating in the wind, angles the telescope, as it simultaneously turns clockwise.

Beneath the telescope are a number of permanent outdoor experiments, most notably are the ‘Whispering Dishes,’ which are two parabolic dishes facing each other spaced around 20 metres apart.


image credit: pcdphotography

When you speak at the focus of one parabolic dish, the sound waves of your voice travel out from your mouth and reflect off its surface, forming a parallel beam. This beam then travels to the other dish where the reverse happens, concentrating the sound again at the focus so even whispers can be heard clearly. The conversation travels at the speed of sound, around 340 metres per second. The principle remains the same as the Lovell telescope, but radio waves travel at the speed of light, 186,000 miles per second.

The inclined plane is an example of Galileo’s gravitation experiment, where visitors can roll a ball down a track, and ring bells strategically placed along its path. Visitors must try to arrange the bells so that they ring out at regular intervals. Basically, the balls need to be spaced out more at the bottom as the ball speeds up.


image credit: pcdphotography

The wheel race poses visitors a question; Hold the wheels at the top of the track and let go. Both wheels weight exactly the same, but their weights are located in different places on each wheel. Which wheel is fastest? Which one goes further up the others side? Essentially, given the wheels start with the same energy and go the same distance, they have different speeds.


image credit: pcdphotography

Finally, there is the Jupiter wheel, where the rope sections combine to represent the planet Jupiter, the gas giant planet, where visitors are required to spin the planet by turning a large blue wheel at its base. As it speeds up, the equator bulges out – just like the real planet, whose diameter is about 7% larger than the equator than at the poles.


image credit: pcdphotography

For the first time that day, I take my eyes of the Lovell telescope, turn my back on the Observatory, and walk towards the gardens, camera in hand, thinking of shooting the telescope from a distance, with perhaps an interesting feature in the foreground. The Gardens were established in 1972 by Sir Bernard Lovell with funding from the Grenada Foundation. They contain National collections of Sorbus (Rowan and Whitebeam) and Malus (Ornamental Crab Apple), and a special Galaxy Garden designed and planted in 2011 by Chris Beardshaw (award-winning British garden designer, plantsman, author, speaker and broadcaster). The Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre Gardens are a great family-friendly space, perfect for a picnic, or walk. The site is about 35 acres and there are fully accessible pathways which connect the Galaxy Garden, Space Playground and parts of the arboretum (tree collection). Altogether there are an impressive 3000 trees and shrubs on the site.

The Galaxy Garden was inspired by the research carried out at Jodrell Bank and s built around the themes of Astronomy and Space.  The Garden itself, contains seven smaller round gardens – each of which has mixed perennial planting that illustrates a phase of the development of the Universe – from the Big Bang right through to the formation of our own Solar System. Between the garden’s mazes of willow hedging represent the swirls of spinning galaxies.

Within the round gardens, topiary balls indicate protons and electrons, whilst grasses and airy textured plants demonstrate the expansion of space. The choice of colours represent temperature changes – for example, blues and purples represent intense heat at the heart of the Big Bang, and red indicates cooling caused by the expansion of the Universe.

Of course, I am currently walking around the garden with 3/4inches of snow beneath my feet, in January, with a temperature of -2°C. So to witness this marvel of modern gardening, I shall have to return in the Summer Months.

Returning to the main exhibiton centre, I pay a visit to the cafe, before exiting through the gift shop.

Upon leaving, I find myself craning my neck in search for the telescope on the horizon. Jodrell Bank has unlocked secrets to the Universe that nobody could have imagined. But not only that, it has also played an integral part in what is arguably the single greatest achievement in human history. Signals intercepted by the 50ft telescope showed the signals received when Neil Armstrong took manual control of the Eagle lunar module as well as the moment when the Eagle touched down on the surface of the moon.


image credit: Jodrell Bank/University of Manchester

This is a chart recording the signals from Apollo 11’s Eagle lunar module which were picked up at Jodrell Bank. The graph shows time on the horizontal axis and the frequency of the signal being received on the vertical axis. As the relative velocity between the telescope and the lunar module changes, the signal being observed is Doppler shifted to higher or lower frequencies. The first half of the graph in which the signal appears to jump up and down is just where the settings on the receiver are being adjusted. In the second half of the graph you can see a smoother signal which then shows several wiggles up and down. These wiggles show where Neil Armstrong took manual control of the lunar module to fly it over uneven ground. The signal then becomes a straight line when the Eagle finally lands on the Moon’s surface. The slowly changing frequency is then just due to the relative velocity between the telescope and that point on the Moon’s surface.

The Lovell Telescope has re-written the astronomical textbooks, we’ve all seen the spectacular images that have been sent back, what has been received through the radio telescope, we’ve seen areas where stars are being created, and equally we see what happens at the end of a stars life, of supernova reminisce, in wondrous galaxies, those island Universes. We as a species look to the horizon with the endeavour to discover what’s over it. When you see Jodrell Bank dominate the very same horizon, it calls like a beacon, the discoveries you seek are already there.

Adult Gift Admission £7.65. Concession £6.75. Child (4-18) £5.85. Car Park £4. (at the time of writing)

feature image: visitcheshire.co.uk

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