August 29, 2013 19:00 pm
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StarDate: August 29, 2013
In the 1950s, Bernard Lovell was under siege. The British scientist had led the development of what was then the world’s largest steerable radio antenna — a 250-foot dish at a spot called Jodrell Bank in the Cheshire countryside. But the project was so expensive that Lovell was under attack from the press, and the subject of pointed questions in Parliament.
In October 1957, though, the barbs turned to hurrahs. Lovell’s telescope was the only one in the west that could track Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite. Lovell became a national hero.
Lovell, who was born 100 years ago this week, was one of the pioneers of radio astronomy.
During World War II, he developed a mobile radar system to help British bombers find their targets. After the war, he scrounged up enough surplus radar gear to fill two trailers. He used that to build his first radio observatory, with which he studied meteor showers.
That led to the development of the giant telescope. Over the decades, it’s been used to observe everything from the planets of the outer solar system to quasars at the edge of the universe.
A few years ago, there were efforts to shut down the observatory and its big telescope, which today bears Lovell’s name. Instead, it was selected to be the hub for a giant new radio astronomy project that will combine the signals from hundreds of dishes. So what was once considered Lovell’s folly will continue to probe the mysteries of the universe.
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