The iconic Jodrell Bank radio telescope in Cheshire is the oldest still functioning instrument of its type and the worlds first fully steerable radio telescope. Today Jodrell Bank continues to play a key research, communications and telemetry role in many international space endeavours and explorations; it also once had a central role in the SETI project.
This famous old telescope is known as the MK2, the first instrument on the site was a much less complex static antenna array followed by a small mobile array based on modified military RADAR systems. However, the MK2 is essentially a Heath Robinson lash-up or construction, it is a heavily improvised conglomeration of salvage and re-purposed scrap components. This was partly due to the immediate post war financial limitations which prohibited the option of manufacturing all of the specialised parts. The device is really a prime example of British ingenuity driven by a spirit of urgency, curiosity and scientific progress.
The telescope dish is mounted on the gun turret platform and bearing assemblies from HMS Revenge and HMS Royal Sovereign respectively and this re-utilisation of Navy and maritime hardware was a typically British thing back in the 40s and 50s when even the railways were fitting new diesel locomotives with engines originally designed for high speed gun boats. Only on an island with a noble history of naval defence and conquest would you find an inland astronomy instrument that was also an odd homage to sea faring and maritime history.
Cold War & Sputnik
In 1962 the telescope was hastily commandeered by the Air Ministry during those tense days and weeks of the Cuban missile crisis and pointed toward the Soviet Union as it was, at the time, the only device in Europe that was capable of detecting Russian missiles launched toward the UK or central Europe; in the crucial early stage of flight. Jodrell Bank has also become synonymous with Sputnik, it was one of the first establishments to detect the early Russian satellite, all recordings of Sputnik’s famous beep were made here as the giant mobile dish tracked Sputnik’s trajectory across the sky. Later Jodrell Bank had an important role in the Apollo Moon landings and surveying missions again serving as a very useful communications, telemetry and monitoring instrument. During the pioneering drama of Apollo 11 the complex was manned 24/7 with a direct hot-link to Cape Kennedy and mission control. So during the early years of my childhood and growing up in Cheshire this famous, quirky and deceptively advanced structure was synonymous with the ‘space age’, the white heat of technology, Dr Who and all things ultra modern.
Note, when the telescope dish is in this vertical position, sometimes known as “the dead cow” position, it is undergoing maintenance and not in use. At the time of the photo there was a lot of scaffolding up one side of the main support.
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