Quantum Wave: From Radar to Quasar

by Nicholas Mee on August 26, 2012

Jodrell Bank Radio Telescope, which discovered some of the mysteries of the universe.

On 6th August 2012 Sir Bernard Lovell died at the age of 98.

Lovell was most famous for founding the magnificent Jodrell Bank radio telescope operated by the University of Manchester in the Northwest of England. He was one of the founders of a new science: radio-astronomy.

Trams and Telescopes

During the Second World War Lovell worked on the development of radar for use in aircraft. Immediately after the war he joined the University of Manchester team who were studying cosmic rays. Based in the centre of the bustling city of Manchester Lovell’s equipment suffered interference from passing electric trams, so he decided to relocate twenty miles south to the Universities botanical gardens in the heart of Cheshire.

In 1951, with the engineer Charles Husband, Lovell drew up plans to build a steerable 250 foot (76 m) radio telescope that would be the first in a new class of astronomical instruments. Although the telescope was built on a shoe-string, the project suffered from financial difficulties, but was eventually completed in 1957 just in time to prove its worth to the politicians who were considering closing it down to save money.

Sputnik Spotting

In October 1957, the Soviet Union launched sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite. Jodrell Bank was the only instrument in the West that was capable of tracking the satellite. (The timing was perfect, it only became operational in the same month that Sputnik as launched).

Many people could hear Sputnik’s primitive transmissions on their radios, and some succeeding in spotting it with optical telescopes, although, as Sputnik orbited the earth every 96 minutes, all an observer could see through a telescope was a small, fast-moving light for a few seconds, and even then only at dawn or dusk, when the sun reflected off sputnik’s polished surface.

Quasars

The main purpose of Jodrell Bank was, of course, astronomical research and almost sixty years on it remains at the forefront of astronomy. In 1962, the telescope identified the first quasars, now known to be the result of material falling into super-massive black holes at the core of fantastically distant galaxies. Other targets for the observatory are pulsars, which are produced by extremely compact objects known as neutron stars that form when massive stars collapse at the end of their life. One such pulsar lies within the Crab Nebula, the remnant of a supernova explosion that was observed almost 1000 years ago, as described in my book Higgs Force. Neutron stars are weird objects formed almost exclusively of neutrons, but with a mass that is greater than the Sun. They are like giant atomic nuclei with a diameter of around 15 kilometres.

Inspirational

Lovell gave the first science lecture that I ever attended. I was about eleven years old and I remember little about the talk, but it was an awe-inspiring visit to one of the world’s most important astronomical sites. Jodrell Bank is a magnificent sight as trains from London approach Manchester. In 2011, it was placed on the British government’s shortlist for World Heritage Site status.

More Information

For further details about Bernard Lovell’s life, see:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2012/aug/07/sir-bernard-lovell

Following the link below will take you to a history of the telescope:

http://www.jb.man.ac.uk/history/mk1.html

For a regular update on what is visible in the night sky (at least from the northern hemisphere), see:

http://www.jodrellbank.manchester.ac.uk/astronomy/nightsky/

For more information on Crab Pulsars, see:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crab_Pulsar

Hope this helps!

Nick

Nicholas Mee,

Author Higgs Force

Previous post:

Next post: