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You are in: Manchester > Science > Jodrell Bank > How Jodrell Bank became a Cold War spy

The control room of the Lovell Radio Telescope at Jodrell Bank in 1966 (c) Getty Images

The Cold War spy: Jodrell Bank in 1966

How Jodrell Bank became a Cold War spy

Eminent astronomer Sir Bernard Lovell, whose vision led to the building of the Jodrell Bank telescope that bears his name, has revealed that it had an important role to play in the Cold War – one that nearly led to him becoming a Soviet citizen.

The Lovell Radio Telescope

- part of Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics
- completed in 1957
- primarily to investigate cosmic phenomena
- received first pictures from far side of Moon in 1959
- renamed Lovell Radio Telescope in 1987
- winner of BBC News's Greatest Unsung Landmarks competition

In an interview with BBC North West Tonight to celebrate the International Year of Astronomy 2009, Sir Bernard also told of how Sputnik saved the radio telescope and his job, as the project had come in massively over-budget – which meant he was facing the sack and possibly even prison!

Saved by Sputnik

However, the launch of the Soviet satellite in 1957 prompted a phone call from one of the British Government’s highest military commanders, who had a special assignment for the newly completed telescope – to spy behind the Iron Curtain and become, as Sir Bernard put it, "the western world’s early warning system."

Sir Bernard Lovell

Sir Bernard Lovell

"The day after the launching, he telephoned me to say 'do you realise that if you use your telescope as a radar, you could detect the carrier rocket – and there is no other instrument in the western world which can detect that ballistic missile?'

"The ballistic missile was expected to be, and indeed did become, a vital instrument of international warfare.

"I said 'we can tell you when they launch, but then you can do nothing about it and neither can we.'

"And he said, 'on the contrary, you will give us seven minutes’ warning before the missile descends on London, during which time we will have launched the whole of our bomber force'."

The mission saved the telescope and Sir Bernard's job, and he described the call as being "a moment in one's life which one never forgets because it was that that made it possible for us to be here today."

The Lovell Radio Telescope at Jodrell Bank in 1961 (c) Getty Images

Dual purpose? The telescope in 1961

'A sinister time'

The use of the telescope in such a way led to Sir Bernard being a Soviet target for defection – something which he found out when he took a trip to the Soviet Union soon after.

"I should have been prevented from going, because they obviously knew that we had been used as a defence centre.

"They tried to remove from my memory the fact that they had taken me to their own defence nucleus on the Black Sea coast, because they didn't want news of what they had brought back to this country.

"It was a sinister time and a lot of my compatriots who went to the Soviet Union in those days never did return or if they did, they never survived.

"I must say I was jolly thankful to see the lights of London on one's return."

"It was a sinister time and a lot of my compatriots who went to the Soviet Union in those days never did return"

Sir Bernard Lovell on the dark days of the Cold War

Quite how the Soviets attempted to make sure their secrets didn't return with Sir Bernard, the physicist won't say for now, but he has ensured that one day, all will be revealed.

"I have written a detailed memorandum of the whole of that visit and of my previous and subsequent visits to the Soviet [Union], which is now in the John Rylands archive and which I have asked not to be published while I'm still living."

As fascinating a read as that document will no doubt be, hopefully it will be some time before we get to hear the full story of Sir Bernard’s time behind the Iron Curtain.

Watch the second half of Sir Bernard Lovell's interview with Gordon Burns on BBC North West Tonight this evening at 6:30pm on BBC One

last updated: 20/05/2009 at 12:28
created: 20/05/2009

You are in: Manchester > Science > Jodrell Bank > How Jodrell Bank became a Cold War spy

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