Science behind the photo #51

sbtp_51_main3At 76 metres in diameter, the Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank can be seen for miles around the Cheshire plains. This was once the largest steerable radio telescope in the world and while it has now dropped to third place, it is still impressive enough for Placebo to film a music video there.

For centuries, astronomers have probed the heavens with ever more complex telescopes. A rule of thumb is “the larger the telescope, the better”, since a larger sensor can record images to greater levels of detail.

The Lovell Telescope does not detect visible light, but instead receives radio wavelengths, making it an obvious choice during the early days of space exploration. The dish tracked Sputnik – the first artificial satellite – and during the ‘Space Race’ America used the dish for their own space projects.

But Jodrell Bank hasn’t just been used to detect man-made signals; many important astronomical discoveries have been made by observing the radio spectrum. The observation of quasi-stellar objects, or quasars, was one such discovery in which the Lovell Telescope was instrumental. To make this observation, data from many radio telescopes at the Jodrell Bank site were combined, providing a greater resolution image.

Although the Lovell Telescope is no longer the largest in the world, its popularity is resurging. By employing methods similar to those used to discover quasars, Lovell will be linked with radio receivers from around the world to create the so-called Square Kilometre Array (SKA). This combined data essentially allows scientists to build a radio telescope with a massive area, providing even clearer images of the cosmos. At over fifty years old, the inception of the SKA project means Jodrell Bank can remain useful for many more years to come.

 

IMAGE: Andy Roast

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