Jodrell Bank was the largest full sky radio telescope of its time. It was the idea of Sir Bernard Lovell1, who was a World War II radar technician. During the war he suspected that blips which came up on his radar were in fact radio waves from space. So when the war was over he started to look into this theory using old Royal Air Force equipment. He believed he was right but needed, somehow, to get stronger signals. So, with the help of a bridge builder, he set about building a telescope which would be able to move to cover any portion of the sky. In 1952, work started on the building of the telescope, which was to sit upon a circular track. The estimated cost was £260,000, the equivalent of about £3 million in 2000, and the life expectancy was 15 years. However, in 1957, with the cost spiralling, the project looked as doomed as the warships from which the structure was being recycled. Schoolchildren even started to contribute their pocket money; the future of space exploration already seeded in their minds.
Cold War Comfort
One very important event led to Jodrell Bank's completion. In October 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the world's first satellite and the only apparatus on Earth capable of tracking it was Lovell's telescope. In 48 hours all the wiring and electrical work, which was still estimated to involve a couple of months work, was speedily completed; and, indeed, Jodrell Bank was up for the task.
Jodrell Bank had begun its history as an important tool in the cold war. It would later prove that Lunnik, the Soviet lunar lander, had reached the Moon and intercept photographs in 1966 from the first camera (again Soviet) to reach the Moon. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, it was also the only instrument on Earth that was then capable of detecting the launch of missiles and was called in to be the early warning system.
The radio receivers at Jodrell's heart are cooled to 10 Kelvins, so as to alleviate unwanted hiss. The original bowl had welded steel panels and this was overlaid in the 1970s with a new layer with independently movable panels, to further enhance the signal. These are now very corroded and in need of total relaying.
The Lovell telescope is owned and operated by the University of Manchester, whose researchers mainly use it in studies of pulsars. From time to time it is also used as part of MERLIN, the UK's national radio astronomy facility, and the EVN, the European VLBI Network which links up radio telescopes all across Europe.