The Lovell Telescope

Just becoming a teenager, I remember the fuss in the papers about some professor who was wasting taxpayers’ money on a new-fangled radio telescope in Cheshire. It was late and well over budget. Then in October 1957, the USSR launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite. It became apparent that the near-complete telescope at Jodrell Bank was the only instrument in the world capable of locating and tracking Sputnik and its carrier rocket. Overnight the fortunes of the telescope changed, and within weeks it was fully operational.

Bernard Lovell, whose baby it was, went from zero to hero almost overnight. He had successfully created the largest radio telescope on earth at 250m diameter, fully steerable so could be pointed in any upward direction.

You can investigate the story and exploits of this wonderful piece of technology at the Jodrell Bank Visitor Centre in Cheshire. You’ll find out, for example, that the technology emerged from wartime research into radar, and Lovell scrounged parts from the armed forces for his early experiments.

It’s also quite beautiful, and awe-inspiring when the wheels are set in motion and the disc slowly rotates in two dimensions.

The telescope is still operational today and an integral part of world radio telescope networks, still the third largest. In 2019 Jodrell Bank was recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

One story from the exhibition sticks in my mind. Lovell visited fellow scientists in the USSR to discuss the technology. During the visit he was asked to set up a radio telescope in Russia, which would have meant defecting. After Lovell refused, he believed members of the KGB tried to wipe his memories of the visit using some sort of radiation, he was very sick for a brief period on his return. Le plus ça change….

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