From Copernicus to Jodrell Bank
From the dawn of time man has been beguiled by and maintained a spellbound enchantment with the Heavens. Astronomy and Astrology have developed along different paths, but both trace their origins to the very earliest records of mankind.
The builders of the Great Pyramid in Egypt and Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England possessed considerable astronomical knowledge, as did the Arabs who used it both in the development of astrological charts and maps.
Thales is reputed to have brought astronomy from Egypt to Greece in about 650BC (He is also recorded as having fallen down a well while walking along stargazing). Copernicus, Kepler and many others have contributed to the development of what Sir Bernard Lovell called “The Explosion of Science” – that is the modern Radio Astronomy Age. Both Copernicus and Kepler have been featured on commemorative stamp issues.
In modern times the British Astronomical Association worked closely with professional organizations and dedicated amateur observers, and celebrates in 1990, its Centenary year. Great Britain issued a set of four stamps on the 16th October to commemorate the anniversary, although no mention of the B.A.A. appears on the stamps. Stonehenge is featured on the 37p stamp, and the Lovell Radio Telescope at Jodrell Bank is visible on the 22p stamp.
There are very few members of the British public who have not heard of Jodrell Bank and there remains in the minds of many an exciting association between Jodrell Bank, satellites and manned discoveries in Space. Jodrell Bank is situated in rural Cheshire, near MacClesfield where the Radio Telescope dominates the skyline. The telescope first came into use around the time when the Russians and Americans were sending their first probes into space. Completed in 1957 it was the only instrument in the Western World able to track the satellite-launching rocket of Sputnik 1. 45 years later it is still in use 24 hours a day.
The main purpose of the radio telescopes at Jodrell Bank (and an associated array elsewhere in England and Wales) is to pursue serious scientific research into the nature of the Universe, and owes its existence to the vision of one man – Sir Bernard Lovell. During the Second World War Lovell worked for the government on developing RADAR, (G.B. S.G. 752). When the war ended he returned to Manchester University to continue research on cosmic rays with surplus radar equipment at the University’s botanical station — a place called Jodrell Bank.
From its beginnings in a muddy field in December 1945, the Jodrell Bank Experimental station quickly grew into a centre for the new science of Radio Astronomy. Within a few years Lovell and his team had drawn up plans for the World’s greatest radio telescope. Designed and built by Sir Charles Husband, the new 76 metre Mark 1 telescope started work in 1957.
In 1960 a personal donation from Lord Nuffield finally paid off the outstanding debts and secured the future of the telescope. From that time the observatory has been known as the Nuffield Radio Astronomy Laboratories of the University of Manchester. In 1987, on its 30th birthday the telescope was renamed in honour of Sir Bernard Lowell.
Its most noticeable feature is the white painted reflecting bowl, as seen on the 22p Astronomy stamp of 1990. It is 76 metres across, made from steel plate and reflects incoming radio waves to a focus on top of the central tower. The telescope is fully steerable and can be made to point to any part of the sky. The bowl itself it tilted up and down on bearings at the top of the two supporting towers. Most of the weight is taken on the semi-circular structure beneath the bowl and the whole telescope turns on circular railway tracks, two on the outside and one in the centre. The Lowell Radio Telescope has been featured twice on a G.B. stamp and first appeared on the 19th September 1966 as a 4p Black and Lemon issue as part of the British Technology issue (S.G. 701).
One way of making telescopes more powerful is simply to make them bigger. The biggest single telescope in the world is in Puerto Rico and has a bowl 305 metres across. However, it is so big that it cannot be moved. It lies on its back in a hollow in the ground and can only see a small portion of sky overhead.
Another method, invented at Cambridge, England in the 1950’s is to imitate a gigantic telescope by using a number of small telescopes connected together. MERLIN, Jodrell Bank’s powerful network of Radio Telescopes, works in this way. Six telescopes at Pickmere, Darnhall, Wardle, Knockin. Defford and Cambridge are all controlled from Jodrell Bank. When working together they imitate a single telescope 233 kilometres across.
The biggest radio telescope to have been built in Britain for 33 years was unveiled on 23rd November 1990 during National Astronomy Week. Sited a few miles outside Cambridge, the £3.lm telescope is the latest addition to MERLIN and is designed to probe the fine structure of remote astronomical objects.
Jodrell Bank astronomers expect the extended MERLIN to yield fresh insights into many astronomical problems. Among these are the mysterious and violent processes in the hearts of distant galaxies and quasars, and the equally mysterious but more gentle events that surround the birth of stars deep inside the dark clouds of interstellar space.
It is difficult to visualise, even with the aid of a strong imagination, the vastness of the Universe and the secrets that it holds, but one thing is certain, there must be fresh objectives, ever new missions for man to work towards, or there will be no future at all.