Jodrell Bank awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status  

Jodrell Bank Observatory in Cheshire – site of the world-famous Lovell radio telescope – has been awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status.

Jodrell Bank’s Lovell Telescope. Image: Anthony Holloway

The observatory, which is owned by Manchester University, joins international sites including Stonehenge, Machu Picchu and the Great Wall of China.

The award recognises the role that Jodrell Bank has played in transforming our understanding of the universe. The site has played a pioneering role in the development of radio astronomy, tracking spacecraft in the early space race, and carrying out research into quasars, pulsars and gravitational lenses.

It is most famous as the home one of the world’s largest steerable radio telescopes: the Lovell Telescope, which was named after its creator, the late Sir Bernard Lovell.

Completed in 1957, the dish was the largest of its kind anywhere in the world until 1973 and was the catalyst for the construction of many other large-scale satellite dishes. Its first act was to track the Soviet Union’s Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite.

At the time of its construction it was also something of a marvel of engineering. Reporting on the unveiling of the dish in 1957 The Engineer noted that “Civil, mechanical and electrical engineering techniques are all involved in the successful operation of the radio telescope, sometimes in an original manner.”

Talking to The Engineer in 2006, in what was one of his final interviews, Sir Bernard Lovell reflected on the challenges of getting the project off the ground in cash-strapped post war Britain: ‘I got into serious trouble because the final bill for this was £680,000 – I’d overspent by £200,000. Do you know?’ he laughed, ‘you couldn’t build it for £40m today.’

The Lovell Telescope in 1957

The project’s fortunes changed when, in 1957, the telescope tracked the carrier rocket for Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial satellite. It was, for a time, the only instrument in the world powerful enough to track the various probes and satellites launched during US and Russia’s battle of cosmic one-upmanship – and military interest in the facility helped pay the bills throughout the cold war.

Today, Jodrell operates the UK’s national e-MERLIN radio telescope and hosts the global headquarters of the Square Kilometre Array, a radio telescope project that will build the world’s largest telescope, comprised of a network of instruments sited in South Africa and Australia.

Commenting on the latest award Teresa Anderson, director of Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre said: “This is wonderful news and a great day in the history of Jodrell Bank. It honours the pioneering work of Sir Bernard Lovell and the early scientists here, together with the world leading research that continues to this day.”

Professor Michael Garrett, director of the Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics and Sir Bernard Lovell Chair of Astrophysics, said: “We’re very proud that the contribution of the Observatory and its staff, have been recognised at the very highest level. We continue to explore the Universe with e-MERLIN and our participation in the European VLBI Network, and we look forward to playing a major role in the scientific exploitation of the Square Kilometre Array.”