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From Sputnik to the Space Station, Jodrell Bank has played a part.
Friday 11.00-11.30am 13 June 2003

The radio telescope at Jodrell Bank has been monitoring deep space for nearly 50 years. It is Britain's eyes and ears on the universe. Hundreds of people keep it listening and watching and it's recently been upgraded to cope with the ever unfolding vistas of astronomy.

Jodrell Bank
Jodrell Bank

Brian James talks to the people that make Jodrell Bank function. Scientists, engineers and maintenance personnel all contribute to an unusual behind the scenes glimpse of one of our most recognisable and best loved landmarks.

A Brief History of "The Big Ear":

In 1949, a recently demobbed radar engineer called Bernard Lovell borrowed some army surplus equipment and set up a radio telescope in a muddy field, just outside Manchester, called Jodrell Bank. The experiments, originally designed to last a few weeks, have continued for nearlyfive decades and today the Jodrell Bank Radio Observatory is recognised as one of the most important centres in the history of modern astronomy.

Almost immediately, Jodrell’s experiments began to transform our knowledge of the universe. But it was in 1957 that “The Big Ear” attracted the world’s fascination and awe. That was the year the Soviet Union launched Sputnik - the first man-made object ever to orbit the Earth. It caused a sensation and it was Jodrell Bank - the only man-made object capable of tracking Sputnik - which confirmed to the world that the space race had begun. This event transformed the fortunes of British Space Science, assured the future of Jodrell Bank and, more immediately, rescued Bernard Lovell from prison and penury.

“A series of slow-moving near disasters” is how Robert Hanbury Brown, one of Jodrell’s earliest researchers, remembers the building of the great telescope. It took nearly a decade from design to completion and was the largest and most complex construction of the post-war era. Bernard Lovell originally costed the whole project at about sixty thousand pounds. But, by 1957, he had run up a bill of nearly a quarter of a million pounds! On the eve of completion, facing both a workers strike and the threat of legal action from the Treasury, Lovell needed a miracle and he got one: Sputnik.

Actuality from the control room at Jodrell, recorded on October 12, 1957 reveals the excitement felt by scientists, the military and the assembled world’s media, as Lovell and his team finally managed to bounce a signal off the carrier rocket, revealing it moving across the horizon at over 16,000 miles per hour. The next day both Jodrell Bank and Lovell were household names around the world. For the next ten years, the telescope played a vital role in both the Soviet and American attempts to conquer the heavens – tracking and even controlling objects in space. It was a rather unique, if bizarre, situation as Lovell, (now 90 years of age) recalls: “Both the Soviets and Americans had the ability to launch payloads into space, but no means of tracking them!”

In 1961, however, a new role for Britain’s "Big Ear" emerged when the Cuban Missile Crisis placed the world on Red Alert. Jodrell Bank was still the only device capable of tracking incoming Soviet ICBMs. It was decided, at an emergency session of the Cabinet, that Jodrell be discretely turned towards the Iron Curtain, in the hope of giving the West a few minutes warning of any attack. Whilst the researchers at Jodrell Bank continued to explore the universe to further the cause of radio astronomy, only Lovell and his immediate superior knew the true purpose of the telescope during that fateful weekend.

At almost every key moment in the history of space flight, from Sputnik to the Moon Landings to the Pioneer probes and the International Space Station, Jodrell Bank has played an important role. But Jodrell has also led the way in the field of radio astronomy, revealing cosmic phenomena like Quasars, calculating the age of the universe and lending its “big ear” to the SETI project - the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, listening out for a signal, not from a rocket, but from a distant inhabited world far out in space.

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