IT was 60 years ago today that the Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank Observatory in Cheshire began operating. It would go on to become an iconic landmark, and is one of the greatest achievements of British astronomy.

Back then it was the world’s largest steerable radio telescope and is still the world’s third largest such radio telescope after the Green Bank in the US and Effelsberg in Germany.

It was originally known simply as the Radio Telescope or the 250ft (76.2m) telescope, that being the diameter of the bowl that gathers in radio waves from across the cosmos. The whole telescope weighs 3200 tonnes and its computer-driven mechanism gives it an accuracy so tiny that the human eye can’t measure it.

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The bowl or dish which has made Jodrell Bank so famous was chosen by the public as Britain’s greatest unsung landmark in a poll for the BBC in 2006.

THE guiding genius behind the project was Bernard Lovell, the first director of the Jodrell Bank Observatory which was then, as now, part of the University of Manchester.

Lovell had worked with Sir Robert Watson-Watt in the development of radar during the Second World War and was principally responsible for the creation of the long-lasting H2S radar system which had later variants and was installed in many bombers, including the Vulcan that saw service in the Falklands War in 1982.

A physicist and astronomer as well as a talented organ player, Lovell had been researching cosmic rays at Manchester University before the war and he saw the possibilities of using radio waves to find and track cosmic rays and solid objects such as meteors.

Having persuaded the university – his section was part of the botany department – to establish an observatory away from the city at Jodrell Bank in Cheshire, he then embarked on the great work of constructing the Radio Telescope which now bears his name.

He was knighted for this project along with Charles Husband, one of Britain’s greatest engineering brains who rejected the theories of most engineers in post-war Britain, and who said creating such a giant moveable structure was impossible.

Husband salvaged two gun turrets from the battleships HMS Revenge and Royal Sovereign that were to be broken up in 1950, and these turrets became an integral part of the structure.

Adjustments were made to the design as space research moved rapidly forward, and funds were sought from the Nuffield Foundation and the Government to complete the job.

It was a complex project, however, and the budget was insufficient to cover numerous cost overruns – the price of steel rose heavily in the 1950s – but Husband and Lovell managed to get the Radio Telescope built in five years, with the total cost being £700,000, or well over £30 million in today’s terms.

INDEED it was. The telescope moved for the first time under its own power on June 29, 1957, and it was decided to start operations on August 2 – a process known as “first light” by astronomers whenever a new telescope is brought into service.

In the very first hours of operating on August 2 and 3, 1957, the Radio Telescope carried out a scan of the Milky Way and worked perfectly.

Computerised tracking and radar systems were installed over the following weeks and the telescope became fully operational on October 11, in time to track the Soviet Union’s Sputnik 1 satellite which had been launched the week before. The timing was a coincidence, but the reports from Jodrell Bank – the only telescope to track the Sputnik’s rockets – made news around the world and Britain’s new wonder of science was off to a flying start.

As well as pioneering radio observations of deep space, later uses included being part of Britain’s early warning system at times of possible nuclear attack during the Cold War. Before he died on August 6, 2012 – five years ago on Saturday – at the age of 98, Lovell claimed with some proof that Soviet intelligence had planned to assassinate him over his role at Jodrell Bank.

Several other smaller radio telescopes have been installed at Jodrell Bank.

A TESTAMENT to the genius of Lovell and Husband and good old-fashioned workmanship is the fact that though the telescope has required numerous repairs and upgrades, it has survived great storms and even pigeon infestation – peregrine falcons do the job of keeping them away – to play an important role in modern astronomy.

Jodrell Bank is the headquarters of the Multi-Element Radio Linked Inferometer Network, or Merlin – as contrived an acronym as you’ll ever find – which consists of seven radio telescopes across England.

The Lovell Telescope has also played a part in the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence, or Seti – another of those acronyms… Scientists are confident that if we do hear from anybody else “out there” it will be in the form of a radio-detectable transmission. So far nothing has been heard – unless we’re not being told – but if Seti does succeed, there’s a good chance the Lovell Telescope will be involved.