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Problems with the radar and detecting the Sputnik missile


Using the MK I Radio Telescope to detect the Sputnik missile
Bernard Lovell Astronomer
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We attended a lecture by Hagen about the proposal to launch a small earth satellite for the International Geophysical Year. It had been... 1957 or 1958 had been the year of sunspot maximum, and I had, in fact, been associated with the committees which had decided to use every possible means to follow the International Geophysical year of the 1930s with a new venture to explore all geophysical phenomena. And to everyone's surprise, Khrushchev, in the Soviet Union, had immediately announced that they would launch an earth satellite, equipped with scientific apparatus, to do this study. And the next day Eisenhower, the United States President, said that also they would do so. Nobody... everybody believed Eisenhower, but nobody believed the Soviet Union.

Well, I had read in The New York Times, when I was at Colorado, that Khrushchev had issued a warning they had perfected a missile against which there was no defence, and I realised immediately I had had previous information from a colleague in Moscow that the Russians were about to test their intercontinental missile, and my astonishment was that nobody else in America seemed to have any belief that the Russians were going to do this. So I said to Hagen... after the lecture, I said, 'Hagen, you know, you were going to launch your satellite. You've now postponed it for two or three months. You're going to be beaten by the Russians. They're about to launch a satellite'. And he said, 'Oh, nonsense. They've no capability of doing so'. They had. And the consternation all over the world was enormous, particularly in America.

But to go back to the Jodrell story. I had this message from London, and I... at the same time, Jodrell, for reasons which I never understand, suddenly became full of people from the press, and the media, from everywhere, all over the world, and I had no idea why they were there. And for some reason, a dramatic event had happened by the Russians launching this Sputnik, and they seemed to think that this huge device at Jodrell would also have some purpose to play. Well, indeed I got hold of Husband and I said, 'Look, if you're prepared to persuade all the workers to come back, and complete the work on the telescope as quickly as possible, I'm prepared to have a go at detecting, not the Sputnik', I said, 'It'll be easy for me to put, use the telescope and put the receiver on and get the bleep-bleep, but I'm not going to do that. It's a waste of time. I'm willing to try to detect the missile that launched it'.

Well, the result was extraordinary. I mean, he got everybody back to work, and the... I think I then said that work, which we'd anticipated to take months, was completed in a week. The driving system, which had then been handed over to Brush, the man from Brush, came and first of all the telescope could be rotated from the Ward Leonard Room. We'd turned over to Ward Leonard system, and not a metadyne and I... but it could not be driven from the Control Room. And the Brush engineer was there, and we were standing by him, and eventually connected up the analogue computer, as it then was to drive the telescope, and it went backwards, and we sort of made a guffaw, and he immediately walked out. He said, 'I'm not going to continue to work here with all you people around'. And so, we then retired and left him to himself, and he eventually got the system to work properly.

So within a few days of this drama, we had the telescope under control, with the analogue computer form the Control Room, and I had intended to use... I will return to what had been happening on the research front later on during this period. But it happened that by that time we had a radar system capable of working, capable of detecting echoes from the moon, working on a frequency of 160, 180 megahertz, something like that. And we connected this to the telescope, and a few days after the launching of the Sputnik, we had the telescope in automatic motion, with... receiving echoes from the moon. Now, when you think of it, that was surprising. I think there was no... everybody thought that the work to be done, once, if work could be restarted, would take several weeks, and everything had been done in a few days. We then had the attempt to... made the attempt to detect the 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 Geophysical Year, Soviet Union, USA, President of the United States, New York Times, Colorado, Sputnik 1, Moscow, Jodrell Bank, London, Nikita Khrushchev, Dwight Eisenhower, Charles Husband

Duration: 6 minutes, 2 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2007

Date story went live: 05 September 2008