Jodrell Bank Observatory

The Jodrell Bank Observatory  (/ˈdʒɒdrəl/) is a British observatory that hosts a number of radio telescopes, and is part of the Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics at the University of Manchester. The site is on the United Kingdom Tentative List for World Heritage Site status.

The site of the observatory, which includes the Jodrell Bank Visitor Centre and an arboretum, is located in the civil parish of Lower Withington, near Goostrey and Holmes Chapel, and between the towns of Macclesfield, Knutsford and Congleton, all in Cheshire, England. It is reached from the A535. An excellent view of the telescope can be seen by travelling by train, as the main line between Manchester and Crewe passes right by the site, with Goostrey station being only a short distance away.

The observatory was established in 1945 by Sir Bernard Lovell, a radio astronomer at the University of Manchester who wanted to investigate cosmic rays after his work on radar during the Second World War. It has since played an important role in the research of meteors, quasars, pulsars, masers and gravitational lenses, and was heavily involved with the tracking of space probes at the start of the Space Age. The managing director of the observatory is Professor Simon Garrington.

The main telescope at the observatory is the Lovell Telescope, which is the third largest steerable radio telescope in the world. There are three other active telescopes located at the observatory; the Mark II, as well as 42 ft (13 m) and 7 m diameter radio telescopes. Jodrell Bank Observatory is also the base of the Multi-Element Radio Linked Interferometer Network (MERLIN), a National Facility run by the University of Manchester on behalf of the Science and Technology Facilities Council.

Jodrell Bank was first used for academic purposes in 1939 when the University of Manchester’s Department of Botany purchased three fields at the site from the Leighs. The name of the site came from a nearby ground rise called Jodrell Bank, which was named after William Jauderell and whose descendants, the Leighs, lived at the mansion that is now Terra Nova School. The site was extended in 1952 by the purchase of a farm from a local farmer, George Massey. The new land included the site upon which the Lovell Telescope was sited.

The first use of the site for astrophysics was in 1945, when Bernard Lovell wished to use some equipment left over from World War II, including a gun laying radar to investigate cosmic rays. The equipment he was using was a GL II radar system working at a wavelength of 4.2 m, provided by J. S. Hey. He originally intended to use the equipment in Manchester, however electrical interference from the trams that then ran down Oxford Road prevented him from doing so. Consequently, he moved the equipment to Jodrell Bank, 25 miles (40 km) south of the city on 10 December 1945. Lovell’s main topic of research at the time were transient radio echoes, which he confirmed were from ionized meteor trails by October 1946. The first staff were Alf Dean and Frank Foden and meteors were observed by the naked eye while Lovell observed the electromagnetic signal on the equipment. Coincidentally, the first time he turned the radar on at Jodrell Bank — the 14 December 1945 — the Geminids meteor shower was at a maximum.

On 9 and 10 October 1946, the telescope was used to observe the ionisation in the atmosphere caused by meteors in the Giacobinids meteor shower. When the antenna was turned by 90 degrees at the maximum of the shower, the number of detections dropped to the background level, proving that the transient signals detected by radar were indeed from meteors. Shortly after this, the telescope was used to determine the radiant points for meteors. This was possible as the echo rate is at a minimum at the radiant point, and a maximum at 90 degrees to it.] The telescope, as well as other receivers on the site, was also used to study auroral streamers that were visible at the site in early August 1947.

The Transit Telescope was a 218 ft (66 m) parabolic reflecting aerial built at Jodrell Bank in 1947. At the time, it was the largest radio telescope in the world. It consisted of a wire mesh suspended from a ring of 24 ft (7.3 m) scaffold poles, which focussed radio signals to a focal point 126 ft (38 m) above the ground. The telescope mainly looked directly upwards, but the direction of the beam could be changed by small amounts by tilting the mast to change the position of the focal point. The focal mast was originally going to be wood, but this was changed to a steel mast before construction was complete. The telescope was replaced by the fully steerable, 250 ft (76 m) Lovell Telescope, and the Mark II telescope was subsequently built on the same location.

The telescope was able to map a ± 15 degree strip around the zenith at 72 and 160 MHz, with a resolution at 160 MHz of 1 degree. It was used to discover radio noise from the Great Nebula in Andromeda—the first definite detection of an extragalactic radio source—and the remains of Tycho’s Supernova in the radio frequency; at the time it had not been discovered by optical astronomy.

The “Mark I” telescope, now known as the Lovell Telescope, was the largest steerable dish radio telescope in the world, 76.2 metres (250 ft) in diameter, when it was completed in 1957; it is now the third largest, after the Green Bank and Effelsberg telescopes. Part of the gun turret mechanisms from the battleships HMS Revenge and Royal Sovereign were reused in the motor system for the telescope. The telescope became operational in mid-1957, just in time for the launch of Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial satellite. The telescope was the only one in the world able to track Sputnik’s booster rocket by radar; first locating it just before midnight on 12 October 1957.

In the following years, the telescope was used to track a variety of space probes. Between 11 March and 12 June 1960, it tracked the Pioneer 5 probe. The telescope was also used to send commands to the probe, including the one to separate the probe from its carrier rocket and the ones to turn on the more powerful transmitter when the probe was eight million miles away. It also received data from the probe, being the only telescope in the world capable of doing so at the time. In February 1966, Jodrell Bank tracked the USSR unmanned moon lander Luna 9 and listened in on its facsimile transmission of photographs from the moon’s surface. The photos were sent to the British press and published before the Soviets themselves had made the photos public.

In 1969, the Soviet Union’s Luna 15 was also tracked. A recording of the moment when Jodrell Bank’s scientists observed the mission was released on 3 July 2009.

With the personal support of Sir Bernard Lovell, the telescope also tracked Russian satellites. Satellite and space probe observations were shared with the US Department of Defense satellite tracking research and development activity at Project Space Track.

Despite the publicity surrounding the telescope’s tracking of space probes, this only took up a fraction of its observing time, with the remainder used for scientific observations. These include 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). The telescope has also been used for SETI observations.

The Mark II is an elliptical radio telescope, with a major axis 38.1 metres (125 ft) and a minor axis of 25.4 metres (83 ft).It was constructed in 1964. Aside from operating as a standalone telescope, it has also been used as an interferometer with the Lovell Telescope, and is now primarily used as part of MERLIN (see below).

The Mark III telescope was the same size as the Mark II, but was constructed to be transportable. However, it was never moved, and remained at its original site in Wardle, near Nantwich, where it was used as part of MERLIN. It was built in 1966, and was decommissioned in 1996.

A 50 ft (15 m) alt-azimuth dish was constructed at the observatory in 1964. In addition to astronomical research, it was used to track the Zond 1, Zond 2, Ranger 6 and Ranger 7 space probes, and also Apollo 11. The 50 ft telescope was demolished in 1982, when it was replaced with a more accurate telescope named the “42 ft” following an accident that irreparably damaged the 50 ft telescope’s surface. The 42 ft (12.8 m) dish is mainly used for observations of pulsars, and is normally continually monitoring the Crab Pulsar.

At the same time as the 42 ft was installed, a smaller dish called the “7 m” (actually 6.4 m, or 21 ft, in diameter) was installed and is now used for undergraduate teaching. Both the 42 ft and 7 m telescopes were originally used at the Woomera Rocket Testing Range in Australia. The 7 m was originally constructed in 1970 by Marconi Company.

A Polar Axis telescope was built at Jodrell Bank in 1962. This had a circular 50 ft (15.2 m) dish on a polar mount, and was mostly used for moon radar experiments. It has since been decommissioned. There has also been an optical telescope at the observatory; an 18-inch (460 mm) reflecting optical telescope was donated to the observatory in 1951. However, this telescope was not used much, and was in turn donated to the Salford Astronomical Society around 1971.

The Multi-Element Radio Linked Interferometer Network (MERLIN) is an array of radio telescopes spread across England and the Welsh borders. The array is run from Jodrell Bank on behalf of the Science and Technology Facilities Council as a National Facility. The array consists of up to seven radio telescopes and includes the Lovell Telescope, Mark II, Cambridge, Defford, Knockin, Darnhall, and Pickmere (previously known as Tabley). The longest baseline is therefore 217 kilometres (135 mi) and MERLIN can operate at frequencies between 151 MHz and 24 GHz. At a wavelength of 6 cm (5 GHz frequency), MERLIN has a resolution of 50 milliarcseconds which is comparable to that of the HST at optical wavelengths.

Jodrell Bank has been involved with Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI) since the late 1960s; the Lovell telescope took part in the first transatlantic interferometer experiment in 1968, with other telescopes being those at Algonquin and Penticton in Canada. The Lovell Telescope and the Mark II telescopes are regularly used for VLBI with telescopes across Europe (the European VLBI Network), giving a resolution of around 0.001 arcseconds.

In April 2011, Jodrell Bank was named as the location of the control centre for the planned Square Kilometre Array, or SKA Project Office (SPO). The SKA is being planned by a collaboration of 20 countries and when completed it is intended to be the most powerful radio telescope ever built. By June 2012 a facility to house the project office was well under construction.

The Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics, of which the Observatory is a part, is one of the largest astrophysics research groups in the UK. About half of the research of the group is in the area of radio astronomy—including research into pulsars, the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation, gravitational lenses, active galaxies and astrophysical masers. The group also carries out research at different wavelengths, looking into star formation and evolution, planetary nebulae and astrochemistry.

The first director of Jodrell Bank was Bernard Lovell, who established the observatory in 1945. He was succeeded in 1980 by Sir Francis Graham-Smith, followed by Professor Rod Davies around 1990 and Professor Andrew Lyne in 1999. Professor Phil Diamond took over the role on 1 October 2006, at the time when the Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics was formed. Prof Ralph Spencer was Acting Director during 2009 and 2010. In October 2010, Prof. Albert Zijlstra became Director of the Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics. Professor Lucio Piccirillo was the Director of the Observatory from Oct 2010 to Oct 2011 when Prof Simon Garrington became its Managing Director.

There is an active development programme researching and constructing telescope receivers and instrumentation. The observatory has been involved in the construction of several Cosmic Microwave Background experiments, including the Tenerife Experiment, which ran from the 1980s to 2000, and the amplifiers and cryostats for the Very Small Array. It has also constructed the front-end modules of the 30 and 44 GHz receivers for the Planck spacecraft. Receivers were also designed at Jodrell Bank for the Parkes Telescope in Australia.

The original visitors’ centre, opened on 19 April 1971 by the Duke of Devonshire,attracted around 120,000 visitors per year. It covered the history of Jodrell Bank and had a 3D theatre hosting simulated trips to Mars.

Due to an asbestos-related concern for the safety of the buildings, that visitor’s centre (including the planetarium) was mostly demolished in 2003 leaving a remnant of its far end; a large marquee was set up in its grounds. A new science centre was being planned at the time. Those rebuilding plans were shelved when Manchester University and UMIST merged to become the University of Manchester in 2004. leaving the interim centre, which received around 70,000 visitors a year.

In October 2010, the old visitor centre closed and work on a new visitor centre started. The new Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre opened on Monday 11 April 2011. It includes a new entrance building, the Planet Pavilion, a new Space Pavilion for exhibitions and events, and a glass-walled cafe with a view of the Lovell Telescope and an outdoor dining area, an education space, and landscaping of the gardens including a new Galaxy Maze.

As well as being open to the public every day, the discovery centre also organises various public outreach events, including public lectures, star parties, and “ask an astronomer” sessions.

There is a path (not a whole circle) around the Lovell telescope, approximately 20 m from the telescope’s outer railway. Along the path are some information boards explaining how the telescope works and the research that is done with it.

The 35 acres (140,000 m2) Jodrell Bank Arboretum, created in 1972, houses the UK’s national collections of crab apple Malus and mountain ash Sorbus species, and the Heather Society’s Calluna collection. The arboretum also features a small scale model of the solar system, the scale being approximately 1:5,000,000,000. As part of the SpacedOut project, at Jodrell Bank is also the Sun in a 1:15,000,000 scale model of the solar system covering Britain.

There is an astronomy podcast from the observatory, named The Jodcast. The BBC television programme Stargazing Live was hosted in the control room of the observatory. The programme has had three series, in January 2011, 2012 and 2013.

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