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Using the MK I Radio Telescope to detect the Sputnik missile


A critical year for the MK I Radio Telescope
Bernard Lovell Astronomer
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1957, the critical year opened with work still proceeding on the telescope, the plating of the bowl having been begun, and then some of the 19 miles of scaffolding being removed so that we could test the elevation drive of the telescope. And that was indeed a very exciting moment, some time in the early summer of 1957, when we first decided to try the tilting of the bowl. And it was a lovely summer's day, and I remember that the great, general alarm then, was of the enormous number of young birds that had been disturbed, and were flying away from the telescope, because this great structure had been used for the building of many nests by many types of birds.

Anyhow, in 1957 it progressed, and in August, I went with Hanbury Brown to a meeting of the International Scientific Radio and... URSI in Colorado. And we arrived back at Jodrell in mid-September to find everything stationary. The bowl was... the plating of the bowl was, I think, three quarters, but there was a great rim near the edge incomplete. The people doing that were on strike. Every other bit of work on the telescope was ceased, because the money had run out to pay the contractors. I remember saying to... And we were being blasted by the press because the contractors had informed them that we were bankrupt, and that this great structure, of which nobody knew what it was going to be used for, had run into serious debt. I said to Hanbury, 'I'm afraid, Hanbury, we need a miracle to save us'.

Well, a few weeks later, that miracle happened. With the telescope stationery, and with months of work to be, apparently to be done on it, the Russians, the Soviets launched their Sputnik on October 4th 1957. Now, I really had no intention of doing anything about the... First of all, the bleep... bleep from the Sputnik was easy to pick up, anybody could do it with a simple receiver, until I had a telephone call from London, and the message was straightforward, 'Please, could you try to detect the carrier rocket with your telescope?' There is nowhere else in the Western world capable of doing this. And this was the... the carrier rocket was, of course, the world's first intercontinental ballistic missile.

Bernard Lovell (1913-2012), British radio astronomer and founder of the Jodrell Bank Observatory, received an OBE in 1946 for his work on radar, and was knighted in 1961 for his contribution to the development of radio astronomy. He obtained a PhD in 1936 at the University of Bristol. His steerable radio telescope, which tracked Sputnik across the sky, is now named the Lovell telescope.

Listeners: Megan Argo Alastair Gunn

Megan Argo is an astronomer at the University of Manchester's Jodrell Bank Observatory researching supernovae and star formation in nearby starburst galaxies. As well as research, she is involved with events in the Observatory's Visitor Centre explaining both astronomy and the history of the Observatory to the public.

Alastair Gunn is an astrophysicist at Jodrell Bank Observatory, University of Manchester. He is responsible for the coordination and execution of international radio astronomical observations at the institute and his professional research concerns the extended atmospheres of highly active binary stars. Alastair has a deep interest and knowledge of the history of radio astronomy in general and of Jodrell Bank in particular. He has written extensively about Jodrell Bank's history.

Tags: International Union of Radio Science, Colorado, Jodrell Bank, Sputnik 1, London, Soviet Union, Robert Hanbury Brown

Duration: 3 minutes, 51 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2007

Date story went live: 05 September 2008