Know Your Cheshire: Jodrell Bank Observatory


The University of Manchester’s Jodrell Bank Observatory is home to the world-famous Lovell Telescope and operates e-MERLIN, the UK’s national radio astronomy facility linking seven radio telescopes over a distance of 217km.

The Lovell Telescope, which dominates the site, celebrated its sixtieth anniversary in 2017.

The world’s largest telescope when it was completed in 1957, it is now more powerful than ever and has become an icon of science and engineering.

The Discovery Centre at Jodrell Bank welcomes around 185,000 visitors each year, including 26,000 school pupils on educational visits.

It showcases the heritage of the site and the research work of the University’s Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics to a wide audience and aims to inspire the next generation of scientists & engineers.


Did you know…

– When the Lovell Telescope was being built in the 1950s, it was at risk of not being completed because it had run far over budget. The miracle that saved it was the launch of the first satellite on 4th October 1957 (Sputnik 1) which it tracked by radar, bringing the telescope worldwide fame.

– Although it had been intended for astronomy, the tracking of Sputnik led to the Lovell Telescope playing a key role in the space race, tracking both American and Russian spacecraft. It was even on standby as the UK’s early warning system against nuclear missile attack during the Cuban Missile Criss in 1962.

– At 76 metres in diameter, the Lovell Telescope is currently the third largest steerable telescope in the world after the Effelsberg Radio Telescope in Germany and the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope in the USA. Both are 100 metres in diameter.

– The Lovell Telescope is so sensitive that using mobile phones on the site is usually forbidden. Even the microwave in the staff room is shielded inside a metal box to prevent interference!

– The Lovell Telescope tracked the Soviet craft Luna 9 in February 1966, the first spacecraft to make a soft landing on the Moon. The telescope was used to hack into the spacecraft’s signal and print the very first picture from the moon’s surface – on a fax machine borrowed from the Daily Express!

– Astronomers at Jodrell Bank also had a major role in the discovery and identification of quasars (QUASi-stellAR radio source). These are powered by interstellar dust and gas falling into super-massive black holes at the centres of distant galaxies.

– Jodrell Bank was instrumental in demonstrating gravitational lensing – the warping of space-time around massive objects (… but you probably knew that already!) This discovery is a major plank in the evidence for Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

– Astronomers also use the telescope to investigate pulsars – the extremely dense remnants of stars left over from supernova explosions. They rotate and emit beams of radio waves, a bit like a lighthouse.

– The telescope is regularly linked up with others across the UK in the e-MERLIN network, which increases the sharpness of its view, and to large radio telescopes across Europe and beyond in the European VLBI Network.


Other interesting facts…

– The Lovell and Mark II Telescopes at Jodrell Bank are both Grade I listed buildings and Jodrell Bank Observatory is now on the UK shortlist for World Heritage Site status.

– The observatory regularly features in the media… including its role in playing host to the BBC series Stargazing Live.

– In Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Jodrell Bank scientists missed the fictional alien invasion because they were busy having a cup of tea…!

– Jodrell Bank has a history of association with music being the location for videos by iconic Manchester band Doves, Placebo, Public Service Broadcasting and Brian Cox’s D:Ream.

– Elbow recorded an album and DVD of their 2012 performance ‘Live at Jodrell Bank’.

– In a 1981 episode of Doctor Who, the Doctor’s fourth incarnation (played by Tom Baker) fell to his death from a walkway at the Lovell Telescope. The Doctor then regenerated as Peter Davison.


(Our thanks to the team at Jodrell Bank Observatory and Bluedot for providing the information for this article)



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