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Work at Jodrell Bank into the velocity of meteors


Observing the Giacobinids meteor shower of 1946
Bernard Lovell Astronomer
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Prentice then had to return to Suffolk because his family I don't think particularly liked him observing meteors. They wanted him to get on with his business, but he said that we must be certain to watch the... in October, when there was going, there was probably going to be a great... a great meteor shower. Now, he had discovered in the 1930s a very active meteor shower called the Giacobinids and he... this belonged to a comet, the Giacobini-Zinner Comet with a period of about six years, and Prentice said that the... the meteor stream was very closely associated with the head of the comet and that he predicted that... that although there hadn't been a quiescent number of years when the... when the earth crossed the orbit of the comet, when... when it had not, where there was a few meteors, in October 1946 he predicted that there would be a... a really big meteor shower. So we were actually watching sky in October 1946 and I might say that by that time Clegg had built a marvellous steerable array of yagis and this was... I borrowed a... a searchlight mount which I never returned. I'm not sure if the remains are all down still at Jodrell, and on this we mounted this... this considerably sized yagi aerial, which had a narrow beam, which we could rotate to the sky.

Now, the night of October the 4th 1946 must surely live in anyone's memory who was awake and had a clear sky on that night, and fortunately we did. Until about midnight there was only occasional meteor activity and then suddenly about an hour later, the activity began to grow, and by... by 3 o'clock, 3 am in the morning, it was quite dramatic. It was as though one was being showered from space with vast numbers of... of missiles, which suddenly disappeared before one's eyes as they burnt up in the high atmosphere.

We had... we did two important things during that shower. First of all, it was impossible to go on counting the meteors on the cathode ray tube and so we had foreseen that might be possible on a mounted camera so that we could photograph the tube, and we estimated that within a few minutes of the maximum, which was very sharp, there were a thousand or so meteors per minute. Now, then we did an extremely important experiment. Near the peak of the shower, we turned the searchlight aerial in... into the radiant. We had been observing them with the... with the beam of the aerial pointing 90 degrees from the radiant and because we were getting a specular reflection from the trails, but as soon as we turned the... the beam of the aerial into the direction of the meteor, as though the... the meteors were coming down the aerial itself, then our echo rate collapsed instantly and we had no echoes. Now this turned out to be an extremely important experiment because it did reveal that... that with the sensitivity we... we had, that all the echoes we were observing were... really were associated with meteors. That... that is one of the... you... you will find the paper describing that also in the monthly notices.

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: Suffolk, Giacobinids, Draconids, Giacobini-Zinner Comet, Jodrell Bank, Manning Prentice, J A Clegg

Duration: 4 minutes, 7 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2007

Date story went live: 05 September 2008