Jodrell Bank telescope: the Lovell telescope

Year:1955

Duration:3 years

Cost:£700,000 (£18m today)

Country: Jordell Bank, UK

What did this project achieve?

Build the biggest and most powerful telescope to have existed at that time

The Lovell Telescope is a radio telescope at Jodrell Bank observatory in Cheshire in the north west of England.

It has a 250ft (76.2m) diameter and was the largest steerable dish telescope in the world when it was commissioned in 1957. It’s now the third largest.

Originally known as the ‘250ft telescope’, it was renamed the Lovell Telescope in 1987 after Jodrell Bank director and the person who designed it – Sir Bernard Lovell.

The structure’s distinctive 76.2m white bowl can be seen for miles around. Supported on either side by 2 towers, it can be tilted at any angle from the horizon to the zenith – it can be directed to any point in the sky.

Part of the MERLIN and European VLBI Network arrays of radio telescopes, it’s played a key part in astronomical research over the past 50 years.

The telescope’s work has included surveys of radio emissions from other galaxies, observation of the sun and investigations into meteors.

The structure was made a Grade 1 listed building in 1988

Difference the telescope has made

The Lovell telescope has made a major contribution to astronomers’ understanding of our solar system as well as the Milky Way and other galaxies.

The telescope played a large part in the discovery of quasars – super-massive black holes surrounded by an orbiting disc of gas. It’s also helped in the study of pulsars – rotating white dwarf stars that give out a beam of electromagnetic radiation.

Astronomers using the telescope in February 2005 discovered VIRGOHI21 – a galaxy that appears to be made almost entirely of dark matter.

How the work was done

Construction of the telescope started in September 1952 with the sinking of 90ft (27m) into the ground, which took until May 1953.

The next stage was to lay circular railway tracks for the telescope to rotate on. Work on the tracks took until March 1954, with construction of the dish and towers continuing until early 1957. The telescope moved for the first time by an experimental inch on 3 February 1957.

Engineers designed some parts of the telescope around 2 bearing assemblies taken from 15-ins (38cm) gun turret mechanisms. These came from the World War 1 battleships HMS Revenge and HMS Royal Sovereign, which were being broken up at the time.

Equipment from the battleships became part of the telescope’s altitude rotator bearings – the machinery used to tilt the structure.

The telescope’s ‘first light’ was on 2 August 1957. ‘First light’ in astronomy means the first time a telescope takes an image after it’s been constructed. The Lovell Telescope’s first light was a scan across the Milky Way.

The structure has been upgraded several times since it was built. Recent work has included a complete resurfacing of the dish in 2003.

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It is truly magnificent.

Sir Bernard Lovell

speaking after a £32.5m upgrade of the telescope, November 2002

Fascinating facts

Some of the Lovell Telescope’s earliest observations included tracking the first US and Russian probes aimed at the moon in the late 1950s.

The telescope was used to monitor ‘Iron Curtain’ countries during the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962 – a tense stand-off between the US and Soviet Union when the world came close to nuclear war. The telescope would have provided a few minutes warning of the launch of any Soviet missiles.

A model of the telescope appears in the Doctor Who story ‘Logopolis’ – the last regular outing for the 4th Doctor played by Tom Baker. The Doctor regenerates after falling from the structure.

People who made it happen

  • Designed by: Sir Bernard Lovell
  • Consulting engineer and co-designer: Sir Charles Husband

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