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17 March 2008updated 22 Oct 2020 3:55pm

Good night Jodrell Bank

Paul Rodgers explains why he thinks it's time for a very famous British institution to close

By Paul Rodgers

For a science-mad kid growing up in the West Midlands during the 1960s, the centre of the universe lay in a muddy field 20 miles south of Manchester. While the Americans had Cape Kennedy, we had Jodrell Bank. And if Britain couldn’t quite land a man on the Moon, we stood a much better chance of being the first to hear from the aliens every nine-year-old just knows are already on their way from Alpha Centauri. So when Sir Bernard Lovell, the radio telescope’s founder, rose on his soap box to denounce budget cuts that would tear the heart out of the observatory, a little boy’s voice inside me demanded that I come to his defence.

If only it were so simple. Sir Bernard, now in his 90s, is right that the current cuts make no sense. Typically, the quangos that hand out the taxpayers’ cash have decided to slash the £2.5m a year operating budget, after completing a £7.6m upgrade designed to put Jodrell Bank back at the forefront of astrophysics. Letting that project, e-Merlin, run its course would lead to the collection of enormous amounts of valuable data. But that should be the end. After more than 50 years as a working observatory, Jodrell Bank should be retired.

This is not the first time Jodrell Bank has been on the front line between scientists and bureaucrats. The instantly recognisable Lovell Telescope, as it’s now known, was redesigned in the middle of construction during the 1950s, adding immensely to the cost. By 1957 the bill was £250,000, four times the original estimate, and the Treasury was threatening legal action. Salvation came with Sputnik in 1957. Neither the Americans nor the Soviets who launched it were able to track the Earth’s first artificial satellite, but Jodrell Bank managed to bounce a radar signal off it and pick up the echo. Overnight, the observatory became world famous.

During the heyday of the Space Race, Jodrell Bank tracked, controlled and received data from numerous spacecraft, even publishing the first (Russian) pictures from the Moon. And during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when space looked to be the next battlefield, the telescope was discretely pointed east, becoming the world’s first ICBM early warning system. Over the years it has used radar to precisely measure the distance to Venus and helped in Seti, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence.

Dr Lovell, as he was then, moved his borrowed war-surplus radar equipment to Manchester University’s botanical gardens in 1945 because the electric trams in the city-centre were interfering with his search for cosmic rays. His first big discovery, though, were traces of ionisation, charged atoms, caused by cometary dust streaking through the upper atmosphere. Then came the faint sound of radio noise from Andromeda, the nearest galaxy to our own Milky Way at a distance of just two million light years.

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The radio telescope’s biggest success, though, were quasars, quasi-stellar radio sources, the lighthouse beacons of intergallactic space, trillions of times as bright as our sun. They are now believed to be caused by a halo of matter falling into supermassive black holes in the centres of galaxies. But this was only realised after Jodrell Bank, linked to several other radio telescopes, discovered that they were shining in the deepest reaches of the universe. This line of research triumphed again in 1979 when what appeared to be a twin quasar turned out to be a single radio source passing through a gravitational lens, a phenomenon predicted by Einstein’s Theory of Relativity but never before seen.

Jodrell Bank’s record is impressive. But like the Greenwich Royal Observatory, it should now stride into history. The radio telescopes of the future will be huge arrays of small dishes, linked together with computers and fiber optics. E-Merlin is an attempt to emulate such a system, but on too small a scale. Future projects will be so big and expensive that, like particle accelerators such as Cern, only international consortia will be able to afford them. Here is where Britain’s budget for astrophysics should mostly be spent, ensuring our scientists get the observation time they need. This is not the cheap solution the government might want. Not only should it pump money into overseas hardware, but it will have to find new funding to maintain Jodrell Bank as a museum and an inspiration for pre-teen scientists of the future.