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  • Writer's picturePoly Philippou

A Full and Interesting Day – Visit to Jodrell Bank – 15th June 2024

On Saturday 15th June, 34 of us headed up to Cheshire to visit Jodrell Bank for the day. Some drove to get there and many took trains and cabs. We arrived for 11:30 entry and spent most of the rest of the day there, until shortly before the site closed at 5. For some of us this was our first visit to Jodrell Bank, and some of the group were longer term members who had been on the last society visit here in 2019. Much has changed since then, with the opening of new buildings and exhibition spaces, so there was much more to see this time they said.

 

We congregated and headed (in torrential rain!) to the Space Pavilion for our first onsite event of the day. On the way there, we caught our first glimpse of the Lovell telescope (through the rain) (did I mention the rain?!!), parked in its upright position, which is usually because of weather conditions and high winds or maintenance work, and we found out later that today it was due to maintenance work.

 

This beautiful telescope is of course the “star attraction” here at Jodrell Bank. It comprises 3,200 tonnes of steel and has a 76 metre dish. It is a Grade I listed structure on wheels, and built without planning permission (a fact which made me smile).

The Lovell Telescope parked in its upright parked position (photo by Gurinder Lall)

In the Space Pavilion we welcomed the opportunity to dry off in the classroom, where we had an introductory talk by Professor Ben Stappers (known to some of us already from when he gave one of the monthly Flamsteed lectures last year). Ben spoke to us about neutron stars and pulsars, key areas of pulsar observation and research, and some of the work of the Jodrell Bank observatory, past and present.

 

There are about 3,000 pulsars known currently. In addition to the Lovell telescope, which is used for observing over 800 pulsars, Jodrell Bank has another two radio telescopes – the 38 metre x 25 metre ‘Mark II’, used for observing a few dozen pulsars, and the ‘42 foot’, used for observing about 24 pulsars, most importantly the Crab pulsar.

 

Ben gave us a brief history of pulsar planet searching, and it was interesting to hear that the first exoplanets discovered were in fact around a pulsar.

 

Ben also spoke briefly about Jodrell Bank being selected in 2012 as the initial Headquarters of the Square Kilometre Array Observatory, and then going on to win further funding in 2015 for extension of the building and confirming its status as the permanent headquarters.


In the classroom with Professor Ben Stappers (photos by Poly and Gurinder Lall)

 

Ben gave us so much information in this presentation, he left us in awe of the scale and breadth of the work being done, and eager to hear what is discovered next. Testament to this was that we had so many excellent questions from the audience. Huge thanks to Ben for this informative and engaging talk.

 

When we left the talk we were happy to see that the rain had stopped and Gurinder took this fantastic photo of the group and our speaker in front of the beautiful Lovell telescope.

The group in front of the Lovell telescope (photo by Gurinder Lall)

After this talk and the photoshoot, the rest of the day was free for us to do what we wanted. 

 

Walking around, we could see the other two telescopes Ben had mentioned in his talk, though at more of a distance, as these locations are not open to the public.


The ‘Mark II’ (in the distance) and the ‘42 foot’ telescopes (photo by Poly)

 

The largest and newest building on the site is the First Light Pavilion, opened in summer 2022. This building is an architectural gem, it is the same diameter as the Lovell Telescope, it faces due south, and has a thin vertical window in the middle of the main wall which creates a sundial effect in the hallway inside. This building houses the Space Dome, the cafeteria, and the First Light Exhibition space.

The First Light Pavilion building showing the sundial window (photo by Poly)

There were a few Space Dome shows for us to choose from, and some of us saw films about the history of Jodrell Bank, the Apollo 11 mission and our cosmic origins. 

 

The First Light Exhibition brought to life the Jodrell Bank story. I was particularly interested in the section which talked about Jodrell Bank and the Lovell telescope in culture and film, and this included old footage of a showing of 2001: A Space Odyssey being projected on the dish of the Lovell telescope and also of a 1981 episode of Dr Who showing The Doctor and The Master in one of the towers of the Lovell Telescope (spoiler alert – the Doctor (the Fourth Doctor, Tom Baker) falls to his “death” and regenerates on the lawn below the telescope). These films and many of the other exhibits were shown on old Lovell Telescope dish panels, removed and replaced with newer panels in the 2001-2003 refurbishment.


View of the First Light Exhibition space and the Dr Who footage (photos by Poly)

 

At the end of the day, many of us went to a very amusing talk, which was not the ‘Telescope Talk’ we were all expecting, it was not about THE telescope (as advertised) or any telescope in fact, and it was more for a younger audience, but was still very entertaining. The presenter at the start said that he'd been informed that there was a large group from an astronomy society present. I think some of us were tempted to heckle, but we didn't!

 

In the afternoon some were lucky to see the Lovell telescope moving, with such grace!, being tilted from its parked upright position down to a vertical position, and a few also witnessed it rotating right round to face out so that we could look straight into the bowl of the dish. Thanks so much to George for capturing this and sharing the video with us (a gift especially for those of us who missed it IRL!).


The Lovell Telescope turning to face us! (video by George Georgovasilis)


And in its vertical position (photo by Gurinder Lall)

Many thanks to everyone who came on this trip and made it such a fun day out, to everyone at Jodrell Bank who made us feel so welcome, and of course to Professor Ben Stappers for a most engaging talk.

 

We have had two observatory visits this year, this one and the one to UCL Observatory in February, both of which we hope you really enjoyed. Planning is underway for next season's trips, look out for these in the newsletters and on the website, and in the upcoming events presented at lectures and other events!

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