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A journey into the unknown

From the dawn of the Space Age to the world's biggest ever radio telescope, we look at the past and future of space exploration at the University as the world famous Jodrell Bank celebrates 70 years of discovery.

Rising up out of the foggy expanse of the flat Cheshire countryside, you can't help but be awe-struck by the mighty Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank. Enormous and imposing: it knows the secrets of the universe.

Pulling up to the security barrier at dusk feels like the gateway to a classified area; the eerie moonlight offering a privileged insight into a mysterious world.

Jodrell Bank is as indomitable in reputation as it is in stature. Now celebrating its 70th year, Jodrell Bank has been integral to huge, game-changing events in the history of astrophysics and our understanding of the cosmos.

"It's all based on a mistake," Teresa Anderson, Director of the Discovery Centre at Jodrell Bank, reveals, quite on purpose. "Back in 1945, Sir Bernard Lovell came to the site to explore his ideas on cosmic rays but he'd got his maths wrong and the work ended up taking an entirely different direction."

As Teresa utters these words, her face does not portray disappointment but gleams with pride and excitement. Getting things wrong in science is ok, it turns out – in fact it is welcomed.

A fascination with the unknown

"That mistake triggered a new direction and because of that the telescope has discovered things that were never imagined at the time it was created," she continues. "That's the thing about big science – you just don't know what you're looking for." It's this certainty that we can't be certain about anything, that drives the success of this place.

Jodrell Bank played a key role in the emergence of radio astronomy, which transformed the way we see the Universe. "Using non-visible radio waves and other 'invisible' parts of the spectrum to build up an image of the unknown means we can see things way beyond the capabilities of the human eye. It's easy to forget but radio astronomy was the birth of modern astrophysics," says Teresa.

It's this certainty that we can't be certain about anything, that drives the success of this place.

It is clear that Jodrell has been at the forefront of some incredible historical firsts and remains an international leader securing projects such as the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), the world's largest ever radio telescope, headquartered at Jodrell and made up of an array of thousands of dishes spread out in remote areas across the planet.

"The very first thing the Lovell Telescope did marked the dawn of the Space Age - it tracked the carrier rocket for Sputnik 1 – the first ever satellite launched into space."

Jodrell Bank was also responsible for producing the earliest picture of the surface of the moon in 1966 by hacking into signals destined for the Soviet Union from the Luna 9 spacecraft.

Scientific prowess

Such an illustrious history is only surpassed by the possibilities of its future as the scientific prowess of Jodrell Bank continues to dazzle. These days, it's the discovery of the double pulsar and the fact it is host to the ground-breaking SKA that define it.

The SKA is a huge project. And if you haven't yet heard of it, you soon will, Teresa announces. "It's been called the 'CERN of Astrophysics' and will be the biggest science project ever known".

Its aims are quite staggering. "We'll be able to see the universe in more detail than has ever before been possible and examine fundamental ideas like the origins of the universe, gravity and the beginnings of life." There's a striking juxtaposition between these astronomical scientific ambitions and the accessibility of the Discovery Centre at Jodrell Bank. In the café, beside a chalkboard advertising the price of a slice of carrot cake, hang several clocks telling the time on Mars, Jupiter and – curiously – at the surface of a black hole. Somehow, this extraordinary place manages to marry the normality of tea and cake with the mind-blowing work going on here. But this is precisely what Jodrell Bank is all about: bringing outer space down to earth.

Boundless possibilities

Public engagement is at the forefront of its strategy. With jam-packed education programmes, public lectures that sell out in hours and music festivals featuring stars of another kind, Jodrell Bank is perfectly placed to offer a bridge to high-level science for all.

Looking to the future, the exciting thing, according to Teresa, is that we have no idea what discoveries it will hold. "I'm secretly hoping we find a signal from another planet," she admits. The SKA technology is certainly capable of it. "It will be able to detect signals the strength of air traffic radar from 30 light years away, which is mind-blowing.

What is a light year?

Tim O'Brien explains: "Space is big. A light year is the distance that light travels in one year. Since light speed is a phenomenal 300,000 kilometres per second, 30 light years – or 283,821,914,200,000 km – is really a very long way indeed. By comparison, light from the Moon takes only one and a quarter seconds to reach us, and from the Sun, eight minutes."

If we can detect that, we've got a pretty good chance of picking up anything that's out there." Jodrell's Associate Director and Professor of Astrophysics, Tim O'Brien, agrees: "Our Milky Way galaxy is around 100,000 light years across and contains hundreds of billions of stars, the vast majority of which we now know are orbited by planets. The observable Universe contains hundreds of billions of galaxies. Whether any of these thousands of billions of planets harbours life, we don't yet know, but as our technology improves we steadily get closer to finding out."

The possibilities at Jodrell Bank seem as boundless as the universe itself. Teresa muses: "There will be lots of things we haven't even thought of and people will think we've been doing it all wrong but that's great. In science we always want to be proved wrong; it means we've discovered new things."

It is this sentiment that resonates, driving away down the pitch-black country lanes, under the all-seeing gaze of the magnificent Lovell Telescope.

For more information visit or our twitter page @jodrellbank

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