News & Events

Jodrell Bank's Telescopes look to a bright future

4th January 2002

After nearly 9 months of unseen activity, the University of Manchester's giant Lovell radio telescope at Jodrell Bank is now scanning the heavens again, but anyone looking across the Cheshire plain may notice that it now looks rather odd! The well known landmark is now well on the way to the completion of a 2.4 M upgrade that will greatly enhance its performance and keep it at the forefront of astronomical research for many years to come.

Lovell Telescope
Click image for hi-res JPEG
Lovell Telescope
Click image for hi-res JPEG

A major part of the upgrade is the replacement of the steel panels that make up the 250 ft diameter reflecting surface. The panels had begun to rust badly and threatened the structural integrity of the surface. Following the replacement of a trial section in 1999, work to replace them with galvanized steel plates began in earnest in March of last year with the objective of replacing half the surface area during the summer months. In fact, the fine autumn weather allowed the work to continue until the end of October and has enabled two thirds of the surface to be completed.

Over much of the surface, the original panel segments alternate with the new unpainted metal panels. In the light of the dawn Sun the old panels, stained with rust released when their neighbours were removed, look almost red in colour and give an overall impression not unlike the Japanese flag! The remaining third is fully resurfaced. Overall the effect is somewhat bizarre but does not affect its present performance in any way.

The work will resume in March this year and should be completed by mid summer 2002. Then, the task of cleaning and painting the bowl to give a pristine white surface can begin. Each panel will then be precisely positioned to accurately follow the required parabolic shape. This process, using laser and holographic measurement techniques, will enable the new, smoother, surface to be set to far higher precision than the old thus allowing it to operate at shorter wavelengths and greatly extending the scientific capability of the telescope.

During the latter months of 2001, the telescope was given a new drive system that now provides sophisticated control to each of the ten motors that move the telescope to follow radio sources across the sky. The improved 'tracking' capability will be required to keep the radio sources in the far narrower 'beam' of the telescope when operated over its extended frequency range.

Once completed, the reborn Lovell Telescope will immediately be able to make an important contribution to the Jodrell Bank Observatory's other major instrument, the 217km MERLIN array. This links together 7 antennas stretching from the Welsh borders to Cambridge to build up the effect of a giant radio telescope providing images with the same detail as the Hubble Space Telescope. Christmas brought the news that the MERLIN array is itself to undergo a major upgrade in performance which, when using the Lovell Telescope, will improve its sensitivity by a factor of 30. The enhanced instrument, to be known as e-MERLIN, will be able to probe far deeper into the Universe, achieving in one day what would currently take 3 years of continuous observation.

As Professor Andrew Lyne, Director of the Jodrell Bank Observatory, said: "The combination of the upgraded Lovell Telescope and e-MERLIN will give the Observatory two of the world's major research instruments and keep UK astronomers at the leading edge of astronomy well into this century."

CONTACT DETAILS:

Professor Andrew Lyne
Phone: 01477 572640
e-mail: agl@jb.man.ac.uk

Ian Morison
Phone: 01477 572610
Mobile: 07973 634782
e-mail: im@jb.man.ac.uk

Both at the Jodrell Bank Observatory, University of Manchester.
Phone: 01477 571321
FAX: 01477 571618

Further details about the Lovell Telescope upgrade can be found here.

Further details about the e-MERLIN upgrade can be found here.

High resolution TIFF format images can be obtained by contacting Ian Morison

FURTHER INFORMATION:

The University of Manchester's giant 76-metre (250ft) Lovell radio telescope at Jodrell Bank is probably the most famous working scientific instrument in the land and is widely regarded by the public as an icon of the very best achievements of British science and technology. For over 40 years, the telescope, still the third largest fully-steerable radio telescope in the world, has played a major role in astronomical research due to its large collecting area and great flexibility. Equipped with state-of-the-art receiver systems, the telescope is now 30 times more sensitive than when it was first built. In recent years it has played a leading role in many fields of astronomy, including the detection and study of a new population of pulsars and the discovery of the first gravitational lens. It is also currently attracting great public interest through its participation in the most sensitive search ever for signals from extra-terrestrial intelligence.

The upgrade package has four main elements, to be completed at a fraction of the cost (at least 30M) of building a new telescope of the same size and comparable performance:

1) New Reflecting Surface
The present surface panels are being replaced by new galvanized steel plates. Attachment is with self tapping screws to avoid thermal distortions of the type induced in the present surface by spot welding. Work will continue throughout the spring and summer of 2002.

2) Precision Surface Adjustment
Using modern holographic profiling techniques, the new surface will be set to optimise the efficiency of the telescope and so allow operation at wavelengths down to 5 cm, at least four times shorter than at present.

3) New Telescope Control System
The present drive and control system has been replaced by state-of-the-art technology to increase the precision of the positional control. This has involved independent control of individual drive motors.

4)Refurbishment of the Track and Foundations
Remedial work on the surface layer of the foundations has been carried out to prevent water ingress and the outer rail tracks on which the telescope rotates have been relaid.

BACKGROUND INFORMATION:

Jodrell Bank Observatory is a part of the University of Manchester. The current staff numbers about 100, 15 of whom are academic members of the Physics and Astronomy Department of the University who teach undergraduate students in the University and postgraduate students at the Observatory itself. Generations of young scientists have been trained at Jodrell Bank, some of whom are to be found at many of the world's radio observatories, but most of whom have gone into British industry (e.g. into various forms of IT).

The Lovell Telescope Upgrade is being funded by the Joint Infrastructure Fund (JIF) - a 750 million partnership for the improvement of University research infrastructure between the Wellcome Trust, the Office of Science and Technology and the Higher Education Funding Council for England. The grant is being administered by the Particle Physics and astronomy research Council (PPARC). Details can be found on the Wellcome Trust website at: http://www.wellcome.ac.uk/en/1/biosfgjif.html

MERLIN (Multi Element Radio Linked Interferometer Network) is one of the most powerful radio telescopes in the world. It is operated by the University of Manchester on behalf of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) and is the radio astronomy cornerstone of the United Kingdom's astronomy programme. MERLIN is a sensitive network of 7 telescopes distributed over central England; several at and near Jodrell Bank in Cheshire, one at Knockin near the Welsh border, one at Defford in Worcestershire and the newest located just outside Cambridge. MERLIN produces radio images with the same level of detail as that achieved optically with NASA's Hubble Space Telescope.