Mark II Telescope at Jodrell Bank
Mark II Telescope at Jodrell Bank © Ant Holloway
Mark II Telescope at Jodrell Bank © Ant Holloway

Radio Astronomy Site That Revolutionised Our Understanding of the Universe Given Heritage Protection

  • Jodrell Bank Observatory is a globally-important site in the history of radio astronomy
  • Six structures on the site have been listed, including The Mark II Telescope which has been given Grade I listing, the highest form of protection
  • They join the Lovell Telescope which was listed at Grade I in 1988
  • Listings announced on the 60th anniversary of when the Lovell Telescope was first used to collect radio signals from the Universe

The observatory at Jodrell Bank is one of the earliest sites for radio-telescopes in the world dating from when radio astronomy started immediately after the Second World War. It had a pivotal role in the development of the new science of radio astronomy, which was one of the first steps towards modern Astrophysics, revolutionising our understanding of the Universe.

The site was purchased by the University of Manchester in 1939 and used first for radio astronomy in 1945 when Bernard Lovell, who worked for the University's physics department, moved to escape the radio interference that occurred in Manchester city centre. His first observations used ex-army radar equipment and subsequently his team constructed permanent buildings, aerials and telescopes.

Six structures on the site have been listed by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport on the advice of Historic England. The listings are announced on the 60th anniversary of The Lovell Telescope's "first light", i.e. the point at which it was first used to collect radio signals from the Universe. In October it will be 60 years since it was used to track Sputnik I at the dawn of the space age.

Crispin Edwards, Listing Adviser at Historic England, said: "Jodrell Bank is a remarkable place where globally important discoveries were made that transformed radio astronomy and our understanding of the Universe. We are celebrating the history of the site and its impact on the world by increasing its recognition on the National Heritage List for England."  

The Mark II Telescope has been listed at Grade I, the highest grade of listing. It is the site's second large-scale fully steerable radio telescope and was built in 1962-64. The design was developed between Sir Bernard Lovell and the structural engineer, Sir Henry Charles Husband, who had previously worked together on designing and constructing the Mark I Telescope (since renamed the Lovell Telescope). Having two telescopes enabled the pair to work together tracking the same object in space to improve the accuracy of observations. Rather than using structural steel, like the Lovell Telescope, Husband took a new approach, using a pre-stressed concrete mount for the reflector dish to improve rigidity. The British prototype design, using this as its basis, proved the most successful and was internationally adopted and is now synonymous with modern satellite telecommunications. This design then formed the basis for the No.1 antenna at Goonhilly (Grade II* listed), built to receive the first transmissions from the Telstar satellite. This British prototype was internationally adopted for satellite telecommunications receivers. It was also the first telescope in the world to be steered by a digital computer, the Ferranti Argus 104, one of the first computers designed for real-time control.

See the List entry for the Mark II Telescope

The Lovell Telescope is of global importance in the history of radio astronomy and was Grade I listed in 1988. It has been involved in a huge range of work including the study of Moon, planets, stars and galaxies, in particular measuring the size of extremely distant objects. It was unique at the time of its construction for its scale and capability, being the first fully steerable very large radio telescope in the world. It is still the third largest of its kind. It played a major role in the early space race, tracking American and Soviet probes and relaying commands to spacecraft. It has proved very adaptable and continues to be at the forefront of scientific discovery.

See the List entry for the Lovell Telescope

The Park Royal building was built in 1949 and became the control room for the Transit Telescope whose detection of radio waves from the Andromeda Galaxy confirmed that the universe extends beyond our own galaxy. A new projecting control room was added when the building became the control building for the Mark II Telescope. It's a functional, almost flat-roofed building of concrete portal frames with concrete block walls but it has undoubted historic interest as the functioning of the two telescopes would have been impossible without the supporting role of their control building. It has therefore been listed at Grade II.

See the List entry for the Park Royal building

Professor Tim O'Brien, Associate Director of the Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics, said: "We are delighted and very proud that the pivotal role played by Jodrell Bank in the development of radio astronomy has been celebrated with these new listings."

Also listed at Grade II are two of the earliest structures at Jodrell Bank, the Electrical Workshop and the Link Hut.

The Electrical Workshop is one of the structures around The Green at Jodrell Bank, which were built c1949. As one of the earliest purpose-built research and teaching buildings at Jodrell Bank, the Electrical Workshop, or 'Main Office' as it was then, is architecturally modest. However, it witnessed some of the earliest ever discussions of the new science of radio astronomy. When functioning as the Main Office, the building contained the site's library, lecture room and Bernard Lovell's office. Here Lovell planned the construction of the immense radio telescope that bears his name, and convened international discussions for scientists from around the world.

See the List entry for the Electrical Workshop

The Link Hut, or the Noise or Cosmic Noise Hut as it was originally known, constructed at the same time as the Electrical Workshop, was built to investigate 'cosmic noise' or the background extra-terrestrial radio signals that had first been discovered by Karl Jansky in 1932. The hut acted as a control and receiving room for the 30ft paraboloid mesh radio telescope to the west of the hut. Research carried out in the Link Hut helped measure the distance to radio stars, and contributed to ground-breaking advances in scientists' understanding of the structure and size of the universe.

In 1955 Robert Hanbury Brown, one of the original 'boffins' (nickname for people who worked on the development of radar in the 1930s and 40s) and Richard Q Twiss, modified the Link Hut's new dark room extension for optical experiments. These led to the discovery of the Hanbury Brown and Twiss (HBT) effect. As well as its importance in astronomy, this advanced our understanding of sub-atomic physics and led to the development of the new scientific field of 'quantum optics'. The original hut remains little altered, and the extension retains features relating to these experiments.

See the List entry for the Link Hut

The later Control Building has also been listed at Grade II. This is the first purpose-designed control building at Jodrell Bank, constructed in 1954-55. As soon as the Lovell Telescope was operational it was the focus of international attention. It was in the Control Building that the telescope's movements were guided, and its signals displayed and explained: as such, this building has borne witness to some of the pivotal scientific achievements of the last century. Here, for example, scientists detected and tracked the world's first extra-terrestrial vehicles, the carrier vehicle for the Sputnik I satellite and Luna 9, the first to land on another celestial body. The building provides a theatrical approach to the control room, which retains its original control console and is overlooked by a glazed gallery. It is sited to give the best possible view of the telescope, and the two are physically linked by a tunnel.

See the List entry for the Control Building

Professor Teresa Anderson, Director of the Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre, added: "Jodrell Bank has welcomed millions of visitors, drawn by its landmark scientific structures. Science is a hugely important part of our cultural heritage and we are very pleased to see that recognised and protected with these new designations."

The final new listing at Jodrell Bank is the Remains of the 71MHz Searchlight Aerial, today listed at Grade II. The searchlight aerial was developed in the mid-1940s by John Atherton Clegg who brought to Jodrell Bank his extensive knowledge of radar aerials, amassed in the Second World War. During the war Lovell had observed strange echoes on radar screens - suggesting the possibility of a new technique for studying meteor showers. He brought in Clegg, who developed the Searchlight Aerial - based on an army searchlight mount - enabling it to move to track meteor showers continuously. Their findings went on to change Lovell's future career: from physicist to renowned astronomer.

Today only the mount survives - it is the earliest example of Lovell's ground-breaking work at Jodrell Bank - and illustrates the important links between technology developed in wartime and exciting new fields of research that began to place mankind in the context of a far wider universe.

See the List entry for the 71MHz Searchlight Aerial