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Britain's newest World Heritage Site? A giant dish that looks for aliens

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 10/07/2019 Ed Costa
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It’s 11am on a Saturday morning at Jodrell Bank and Jenny, our physicist guide, is instructing us in how to search for aliens. It’s pretty easy. All we have to do is tune our computers to SETI – the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence – when we go to bed instead of turning them off. Our laptops will do the rest.

Not that we should expect too much. There are 13.7 billion years of an ever-expanding universe to scan through, and the chances of us looking in exactly the right place at exactly the right time are very slim. Still, says Jenny, “if science fiction has taught us anything, it’s that we can never be too prepared for these things.” Which is why the Seti@home project, run by the University of Berkeley, allows civilian computers to join the hunt.

The search for aliens hinges on radio waves – which humans have realised are the easiest for communication. “If you shone a telescope on Earth, you’d see radio waves shooting all over the place,” says Jenny. We assume that any other civilisation would have discovered the same, so looking for ET means scanning for radio waves from a distant planet (and a distant time, given how far they have to travel).

the tower of the city: Jodrell Bank is perhaps the world’s most famous radio telescope © istock Jodrell Bank is perhaps the world’s most famous radio telescope Luckily, Jodrell Bank is perhaps the world’s most famous radio telescope – one of the reasons why it was named a Unesco World Heritage Site last week, putting its signature 76-metre parabolic dish on a par with Machu Picchu and the Taj Mahal. 

Although the Lovell telescope (named after founder Sir Bernard Lovell) is surprisingly beautiful – a cross between the London Eye and a steel drum, big enough to fit 168 double decker buses in its bowl, plonked amid fields of sheep and sprawling gardens – it’s the history that has won it the coveted listing. 

Immediately after its 1957 completion, Jodrell became part of the space race. It was the only instrument in the world capable of tracking Sputnik via radar and intercepted the first pictures ever sent from the moon, trumping the Russian press, which was due the exclusive. 

a person standing on a lush green field: Jodrell Bank is set in rather bucolic surrounds © istock Jodrell Bank is set in rather bucolic surrounds Today, it picks up radio waves from galaxies, black holes and exploded stars, and is best known for its work on quasars (remnants of young galaxies which astronomers study to essentially look back in time) and pulsars (dead, spinning stars so heavy that a teaspoon of material would weigh the same as Everest). Which all sounds pretty dry and inaccessible – until you get there. 

Although it’s still a working site – it’s the HQ for the e-Merlin set of seven telescopes around the UK, and the global HQ for the forthcoming SKA project, which will link thousands of telescopes across the globe – Jodrell’s visitor centre and its ability to parse the intellectually indigestible to a Joe Public level is fantastic.

Daily tours (3.15pm, plus 11.45am on weekends) are led by physicists from the University of Manchester who walk you around the Lovell, explaining the difference between a traditional lens telescope and a radio one (the latter can see through clouds, for starters – good for UK weather), and how astronomers can ‘see’ space using radio waves alone. 

Unlike a traditional lens telescope, this radio one can see through clouds © istock Unlike a traditional lens telescope, this radio one can see through clouds Birds whisk through the Lovell’s frame as she explains that residual energy from the Big Bang is still threading its way through space – one per cent of the interference between TV channels is that residual glow – and it’s that, the oldest light in the universe, which radio telescopes monitor. 

It’s so bucolic here largely because Jodrell has successfully opposed much housing development in the surrounding area. Mobile phones interfere with the telescope’s work – visitors must turn off their phones, or put them in flight mode, while on site – and Wi-Fi and microwaves can also cause false positives, whether looking at black holes or searching for aliens.

“The Parkes telescope in Australia once got very excited [in the search for extraterrestrial life],” says Jenny. “But it turned out that one astronomer had been a little too keen to go to lunch, and had opened the microwave door.” The device ban – and it’s testament to the project’s engagement that only around six transgressors are caught using their phones on an average day – means that a visit to this most cutting-edge site has the feel of a digital detox. 

The Lovell telescope at Jodrell Bank Observatory in Cheshire, after it was named a Unesco World Heritage site. (Photo by Peter Byrne/PA Images via Getty Images) © Getty The Lovell telescope at Jodrell Bank Observatory in Cheshire, after it was named a Unesco World Heritage site. (Photo by Peter Byrne/PA Images via Getty Images) Teenagers eschew selfies to play with the ‘whispering dishes’: two parabolic dishes set far apart, whose shape (the same as the telescope’s) allows you to hear what the other is muttering, while families take meditative walks through the tree-and-bee-filled gardens that nature-lover Lovell planted on site. During my visit, I lose track of time and suddenly realise I’ve been here nearly four hours.  

The Lovell itself is “parked” until October, while repairs are carried out, so the iconic bowl is currently sitting curve down, like a bisected flying saucer. But though it needs to be swooping up, down and around to best pick out signals from the universe, it’s still transmitting – a button in the Space Pavilion visitor centre (which explains astronomy at a level even children can understand) prints live radio signals, which wriggle out on till receipt paper like a cardiogram. 

There are three other telescopes on site as well as a 150ft microwave tower, used in the e-Merlin project. A swathe of the garden is set to be redeveloped by 2021 to make room for a new pavilion that will explore Jodrell’s heritage, and there are plans for new tours to take visitors ‘backstage’ to the huts in which Lovell based himself when he first came here. 

Jodrell Bank giant mark 1 Lovell radio telescope illuminated at night, Jodrell Bank, England. (Photo by: Loop Images/UIG via Getty Images) © Getty Jodrell Bank giant mark 1 Lovell radio telescope illuminated at night, Jodrell Bank, England. (Photo by: Loop Images/UIG via Getty Images) When the Lovell was built it was the largest steerable telescope in the world. Today it’s number three, but as important a site for astronomy as ever. The Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal and now a satellite dish? A visit to Jodrell will show you why it’s worthy of sitting among some of the world’s finest monuments – as well as kicking off your alien-hunting quest.

Essentials

The Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre is open daily 10am-5pm, last entry 4pm. Adults £7.65, children £5.85 (jodrellbank.net; visitcheshire.com/science-meets-nature).

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