A Day at…Jodrell Bank

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Jodrell Bank - Big science

Jodrell Bank - Big science

For as long as I can remember, Jodrell Bank played a large part in my life. It was where my parents would take my brother and I at the weekend, where we went on school trips, and, in the past couple of years, proved to be a great place to simply go and think. There is something awe-inspiring about such an enormous telescope situated in the middle of the Cheshire countryside, something that puts life on our planet back into perspective. There really is much more out there.

I am not alone. In 2010 Jodrell Bank attracted over 80.000 visitors. The world famous Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank Observatory in Cheshire, part of the University of Manchester, has been a much-loved visitor attraction for many years, as well as an internationally significant space research centre. Recently shortlisted as a potential UNESCO World Heritage Site, Jodrell Bank now expects 125.000 visitors per annum over the next 5 years.

In fact, you might just surprise yourself and realise that you have actually seen Jodrell Bank before: think back to January, when Professor Brian Cox and Dara O’Briain transported galaxies into our living rooms and hosted three days of stargazing live from Jodrell Bank.

Or, even more recently, when Jodrell Bank won the international bid to host the headquarters of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), a £1.3bn project, which is “the next big thing” in radio astronomy. The proposed SKA will be built in the desert either in South Africa or Australia – far away from mobile phones and microwave ovens and things that cause interference when you’re trying to pick up very faint signals from space. The international design and planning will take place at Jodrell Bank, which is a reflection of Jodrell Bank’s status in the science world.

Dr Brian Cox and Dara O'Briain

Dr Brian Cox and Dara O'Briain

More recently Jodrell Bank has been closed to the public whilst the discovery centre was being renovated. The £3m re-build, re-design and refurbishment includes a new entrance building – the Planet Pavilion – and a new Space Pavilion for exhibitions and events. Both of which are a far cry from the centre I remember as a child! (An investment of £1.9m by the NWDA (North West Development Agency), £1m by ERDF (European Regional Development Fund) in the Northwest and £600,000 from the University of Manchester have facilitated this transformation).

So, when CD-Traveller was invited to attend the press launch (before it reopens to the public on Monday 11th April) I leapt at the opportunity!

Jodrell Bank visitors centre: The Planet Pavilion, by Anthony Holloway

Jodrell Bank visitors centre: The Planet Pavilion, by Anthony Holloway

The tour started in “The Planet Pavilion” and the idea behind it, Dr Teresa Anderson (the Centre’s Director) explained, is that “our view out into space begins from this planet”.

The aim of the centre is to “inspire young scientists and connect them to cutting-edge research as it happens”.

The new stylish glass-walled café offers more than just spectacular views of the iconic Lovell telescope: it is run by the award winning Chef Peter Booth from “The Modern Caterer”. It is worth noting that the Café is situated in the “free” area of the visitors centre, so even if you do not intend to visit the museum, it is a great place to take a break!

All the architecture is focussed upon the Lovell telescope. Even the walls in the entrance hall are decorated with designs based on photos of people’s desks, people’s workstations – it is really easy to feel part of the science! The new visitors centre lifts the emphasis from heritage to the work in science which is conducted on the premises.

From the entrance hall, the visitors are directed through a tunnel, with optic fibre “stars” hanging from the ceiling: As you walk through the tunnel, you hear sounds from space – pulsars turned into thudding sounds – some originating from Jodrell bank, others courtesy of NASA.

Through the tunnel, the visitor steps into the exhibition room, which is decorated in pink/purple wall paper (Not just ANY pink/Purple wallpaper – this is a print of real signals which have come back from the recent Planck Space Mission! Give it another couple of years, and this might be available in B&Q….).

A representation of the sun with the months of the year around it and associated constellations that the sun moves through at different times of the year decks the ceiling (Not to be confused with astrological signs – there are 13 – it is astronomy rather than astrology!).

An Orrery (a mechanical model illustrating the relative positions and motions of the planets and moons in the solar system as they orbit the sun) is in the centre of the room.

We then left the “Planet Pavilion” and made our way across the grounds to “The Space Pavilion”, to take a closer look at the science that Jodrell Bank does and the big questions that people ask when they come here. (One of the regular events at Jodrell Bank is “Ask an expert” – visitors can come and ask a Jodrell Bank Expert all those burning questions about stars, planets or the telescope that have been keeping them up at night.) This is where the exhibition about the science of Jodrell Bank – and the interactive fun – begins….

Jodrell Bank visitors centre: The Space Pavilion, by Anthony Holloway

Jodrell Bank visitors centre: The Space Pavilion, by Anthony Holloway

The room is filled of interactive “fun” ways to learn about the Lovell Telescope, the work conducted at Jodrell Bank, and of course “hands on” exhibits, to delight kids and grown-ups alike. Dr Tim O’Brien, Reader in Astrophysics at the University of Manchester, said: ‘This is a great day for Jodrell Bank. The new Centre showcases the live science that happens here with new exhibitions focused on some of the big questions we’re trying to answer about the Universe.’

In space... ...there is a lot of noise

In space... ...there is a lot of noise

The signals picked up by the telescope can be changed into “sounds”, which the visitors can listen to on headphones, and even print off the “signals” to take home with them!

Short films of the Jodrell Bank Scientists talking about their jobs can be used using an interactive screen, which allows you to ask questions, e.g. Dr Tim O’Brian –Which observatories have you visited? Do you have a favourite star? Why are exploding stars so interesting?

An infrared camera is placed so that you can find out how “cool” you REALLY are, and by using a number of hand-held masks, visitors can experiment and discover that there are things that you can and can’t see through. Entertaining things can be done with infrared (warning ladies, it picks up on your bra!).

By ducking under a large cone, you can hear the sound of the big bang, and experience the sound of the first million years of the universe compressed into 10 seconds or so. Inside the cone, there’s information about the history of the universe.

There is a film pod with a looping sequence of movies about Jodrell Bank showing a range of films looking back historically, (newsreels), at modern science and also an animation that was produced especially for Jodrell Bank by Cosgrove Hall (Cosgrove Hall is a famous Manchester animation company: you might be familiar with “Fifi and the Flower Tots” or “Dangermouse” depending on how old you are or even “Chorlton and the Wheelies” ….) Other exhibits cover, black holes, the life of stars, the search for aliens and a “touching allowed” meteorite!

There is a wall covering international astronomy because astronomers here at Jodrell Bank work with telescopes all around the world and in space, and conversely people all around the world use this telescope here at Jodrell Bank (to date, no contact has been made with the telescope from life on other planets, but I guess this is something to look forward to, and I am sure they would use the telescope if they realised how great it was!). Jodrell Bank Observatory operates the Lovell Telescope, the e-MERLIN network of radio telescopes and takes part in the European VLBI Network. Radio waves can penetrate cloudy skies and so world-class research can be carried out from within the UK. This area of international astronomy will be extended, as the SKA work begins.

The Jodrell Bank Visitors Centre will officially open to the public on Monday 11th April just in time for Easter making it an ideal day out. I suggest you go! I am going to invest in an annual ticket as it’s a place that can draw you back time and time again. For more information, regarding opening times, prices etc, please refer to the links below.


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