News & Events

The Future of Jodrell Bank

17 July 2000

The University of Manchester has been informed by the Particle Physics and Astronomy Reseach Council (PPARC) that there is no imminent plan for the closure of its world--famous Jodrell Bank Observatory. The story in the Sunday Times of July 16 "ASTRONOMERS FACE LOSS OF JODRELL BANK" does, however, highlight PPARC's financial problems if Britain is to join a large European optical astronomy project.

Negotiations between PPARC and the European Southern Observatory (ESO) to join its huge Very Large Telescope (VLT) project in Chile have been underway for some time and were the main topic of debate at a recent public meeting called by the Royal Astronomical Society. At the meeting, University of Manchester Professor Peter Wilkinson pointed out the importance of current radioastronomy research at Jodrell Bank for understanding the Universe and outlined plans to upgrade Jodrell's MERLIN radio-imaging telescope. At the end of the debate the meeting strongly supported the ESO negotiations but not at the cost of our radio telescopes which the ESO optical telescopes can not replace.

Any long-term threat to Jodrell Bank, with its high public profile, would undermine confidence in Britain's determination to remain at the forefront of science and technology. The Lovell Telescope is undergoing a major enhancement and plans are well-advanced to upgrade MERLIN in order to provide British astronomers with a unique instrument ready to work with the Hubble Space Telescope and the next generation of telescopes in other parts of the spectrum. Jodrell Bank scientists and engineers can give MERLIN a dramatic boost in performance by making innovative use of optical-fibre technology. As Jodrell Bank's Director Professor Andrew Lyne says: ``this is just the sort of IT-related development in which Britain should be investing, and was identified as such in PPARC's carefully thought-out Long Term Technology Plan.''

The Director of MERLIN, Dr. Philip Diamond adds: "the sums involved are not large -- 6 million pounds would transform Britain's home-based radio astronomy facility. This is a drop in the ocean compared with the 20 billion pounds the government is receiving for commercial exploitation of the radio spectrum for the next generation of mobile phones."

Any threat to Jodrell Bank would follow the decision to close down the major scientific facility at Daresbury only 20 miles away. If the plan outlined in the Sunday Times was to be carried through it would be another body-blow to science in the North West. On the other hand the MERLIN optical-fibre development would involve close collaboration with the IT industry in the North West and hence mean new jobs in the area.

Investment in the future of Jodrell Bank would send a potent public message of Britain's determination to remain at the forefront of science and technology. More than 2000 of the world's leading astronomers are about to meet in Manchester at the triennial General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union (IAU). The IAU was attracted to Manchester because of the internationally-recognised excellence of the University's Jodrell Bank Observatory.

Jodrell Bank can and should be part of Britain's scientific future - adding to the proud contribution it is making to Britain's scientific heritage and to the public awareness of science.


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).

In the 43 years since Sir Bernard Lovell built what is still one of the world's largest radio telescopes, Jodrell Bank has played a famous role in the early exploration of space and made vital contributions to the discovery of quasars and gravitational lenses and to the study of pulsars.

The Lovell Telescope is a source of local and national pride and is justly recognised as an icon of British science. The Jodrell Bank Science Centre, under the shadow of the Lovell Telescope, attracts 140,000 visitors a year (including 50,000 children on school visits). This public outreach is unique among working research establishments in the UK. Some of the young visitors will be inspired to follow careers in science and technology. JBO also constantly attracts coverage from TV and radio and is frequently contacted by members of the public on astronomical matters. Recently much interest has been generated by Jodrell's involvement in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) and the search for signals from the missing NASA spacecraft Mars Polar Lander.

The University operates the MERLIN telescope array on behalf of PPARC as a National Facility open to use by all astronomers in Britain and throughout the world. Scientists from 27 UK institutions have used MERLIN. MERLIN is unique--no other instrument in the world routinely matches the resolution of the Hubble Space Telescope as MERLIN does. MERLIN was conceived and developed entirely by University of Manchester astronomers and engineers and, along with the Lovell Telescope, is Britain's only world-ranking astronomical instrument on home soil. It was constructed for, and is run at, a tiny fraction of the cost of the Hubble Space Telescope.

The sensitivity boost (up to a factor 30) which will be obtained by linking the MERLIN telescopes with optical fibres can be achieved within 5 years. For an optical telescope the boost is equivalent to moving from an 8m diameter (the size of the ESO VLT telescopes) to a 44m diameter one. Such optical telescopes will not be in operation for another 15 years.

For 20 years Britain (via Jodrell Bank astronomers) has been playing a leading role in the scientific and technical development of European astronomy as founder members of the European Very Long Baseline Interferometry Network. This is the world's most sensitive radio imaging array with even higher resolution than MERLIN. This astronomical Network has been very successful in attracting funding from the European Union and is seen as a model of cost-effective European scientific collaboration.


There has recently been an assessment of UK Physics and Astronomy as a whole by a very distinguished international panel of scientists (whose report can be found on the Institute of Physics Web Page

The panel state that "the UK enjoys an extremely high standing in both astrophysics and solar physics" ... "the rate of readily communicable astronomical discovery remains very high and UK astronomers have been at the forefront of efforts to improve public perception of physical science and to communicate to academically promising school children the diverse benefits and opportunities that derive from a physics or engineering education"

The international panel had one caveat however..

"The support of ground--based observing appears to be at a lower level than in many other European countries, Japan and the US..."

but went on..

"possible remedies... include participating in the VLT and ALMA through the European Southern Observatory (ESO) and upgrading MERLIN to a fibre--linked array"

Contact Address: University of Manchester, Jodrell Bank Observatory, Macclesfield, Cheshire SK11 9DL


Professor Peter Wilkinson (Associate Director, Jodrell Bank Observatory)

Telephone: 01477 572602 (Jodrell Bank - get home phone no. from there)

Dr. Philip Diamond (Director MERLIN/VLBI National Facility)

Telephone: 01477 572625 (Jodrell Bank - get home phone no. from there)