With the likes of Bath, London, Liverpool and Durham already recognized, Manchester has been long overdue its own UNESCO World Heritage Site, and now, thanks to Jodrell Bank, it has finally joined that elite club. On 7th July, Jodrell Bank Observatory joined 31 other British sites on the prestigious UNESCO list, which also includes world-famous locations such as Machu Picchu, the Taj Mahal and The Great Wall of China. “This is fitting recognition of the history of science and discovery at Jodrell Bank, and the work that continues today,” said Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell, President and Vice-Chancellor of The University of Manchester. “Receiving this recognition will help us tell their story and the story of the communities connected to the site both across the UK and worldwide.”
The story of Jodrell Bank
The remarkable story she is referring to can be traced back a full eighty years, to a time before the earliest days of the space race. In fact, the very first recorded scientific use of the site was by Manchester University’s Department of Botany, who first purchased the land for their research. The more famous space science applications did not arrive until six years later.
It was Bernard Lovell who first used the Jodrell Bank site for astrophysics at the end of the war in 1945. He wanted to extend his work on RADAR to investigate cosmic rays, using equipment left over from the war, but he was unable to work in the city center, as there was too much electrical interference from the local trams. With a remote, rural setting in the Cheshire countryside, yet just 25 miles from the city, Jodrell Bank offered the perfect alternative.
The arrival of the iconic telescope
When most people think of Jodrell Bank, they picture the giant Lovell Telescope, yet this was not built on the site until 1957. Just like in his previous work, Lovell was keen to re-purpose old war machinery for a more positive use, and so the telescope was built on the gun turret mechanisms from two former battleships. Now, instead of aiming at the enemy, they would be aiming at the stars.
At 250 ft. across, the iconic telescope was the largest steerable telescope in the world when it was built, and it remains the third-largest more than sixty years later. Only the Effelsberg telescope in Germany and the Green Bank telescope in the United States are larger. The Mark One radio telescope, as it was known then, made headlines around the world in 1960 when it communicated with a NASA Pioneer V satellite at a record-breaking distance of 407,000 miles.
A key player in the space race
The Jodrell Bank Mark I telescope, later renamed the Lovell Telescope in honour of Sir Bernard Lovell and his pioneering work, played a crucial part in the space race. Such was its size that it was the only telescope capable of tracking Russia’s pioneering Sputnik satellite, and this was one of its first jobs after it was initially switched on in 1957. It went on to track several unmanned Russian moon landings, as well as the Gemini and Apollo programmes that put the first men on the moon just over a decade later.
Indeed, it was the Lovell telescope that picked up the transmissions from the Russian Luna 15 mission that crash-landed on the moon just a few hours before Armstrong and Aldrin took off to return to their orbiter. With all the focus on the Americans, few were paying much attention to the unmanned Russian craft, but Jodrell Bank was listening intently, noting a change in course that would have taken the Luna 15 craft much closer to the Eagle’s landing site. It was this sudden change of course that ultimately caused its crash.
Still leading the world
Today, over sixty years since it was first built, the Lovell Telescope is still a vital part of our space exploration, with the team taking part in a number of innovative projects to explore the mysteries of the universe. In the UK, Lovell is part of the MERLIN array (Multi-Element Radio Linked Interferometer Network), which links seven radio telescopes across England and Wales. By linking telescopes in this way, scientists can create a super-telescope that significantly out-performs the individual sites. Using a similar principle, the Lovell Telescope is also part of the European VLBI (Network and Very Long Baseline Interferometry) project, and it is the headquarters of the worldwide Square Kilometre Array project, which will link telescopes across the world.
Scientists don’t even have to go to Jodrell Bank to do their research anymore. Thanks to the Jodrell Bank Internet Observatory, students can literally log on to the universe from their laptop. The amazing innovation means that they can explore the stars as easily as they can search for stellar offers at online casinos or star-studded social media feeds.
A warm welcome
Jodrell Bank may be used to explore some of the most remote places in the universe, but it is far from a remote science lab. Every year, the BBC Stargazing Live programme is broadcast from the center, with Brian Cox and Dara O’Briain guiding viewers through the wonders of the cosmos. The site also holds regular concerts, such as this year’s Blue Dot festival; the event attracted major international acts, including Kraftwerk, New Order and Jarvis Cocker, as well as the Halle Orchestra and science celebrities such as astronaut Helen Sharman, Star Gazing Live’s Liz Bonnin and scientist Jim Al-Khalili.
The center already has a great range of visitor attractions, and that is about to get even better with the exciting new First Light project. This £20m+ project, funded by the National Lottery and the UK Government, will add to the excitement with a spectacular new building and a host of new ways to interact with science and space. The project will be created over the next three years, so watch this space.
Today’s pop concerts and state-of-the-art visitor facilities are a long way from the peace and quiet that Lovell first sought back in the 1940s. However, he would no doubt be delighted to see so many people engaged in science and astronomy. What’s more, the new UNESCO status will mean that Lovell’s legacy will be preserved for many generations to come, as the telescope that bears his name continues to search the stars.