Bernard Lovell dies at 98; conceived Jodrell Bank radio telescope
When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite, into orbit in 1957, its tiny radio transmitter allowed it to be tracked in space. There was only one instrument in the West that could track the intercontinental ballistic missile that launched it, however: the newly opened 250-foot radio telescope at Jodrell Bank in England.
And when Sputnik’s transmitter died after only 22 days, Jodrell Bank — towering over the English countryside in a small village south of Manchester — was the only instrument that could track it until it fell to Earth three months later.
The telescope, which has since played a crucial role in tracking orbiting satellites, searching for missing probes on the moon and revealing the wonders of deep space, was the brainchild of one man, Sir Bernard Lovell. Lovell conceived it, fought vigorously for funds, faced jail when funding fell short and oversaw its use for the rest of his career.
Lovell, who had been in ill health for several years, died Monday at his home in Swettenham Village, England, according to the University of Manchester. He was 98.
“Sir Bernard leaves a fantastic legacy at the university’s Jodrell Bank Observatory, which is a world-class center for astronomy research, an iconic science monument and a center that attracts thousands of visitors and inspires scientists of the future,” said Dame Nancy Rothwell, president of the university, where Lovell was a professor emeritus. “He was a towering figure, not just in Manchester or the U.K., but globally.”
Stellar objects emit radiation at a broad range of frequencies, including radio frequencies. In the 1930s, researchers at Bell Laboratories made the first observation of radio signals emanating from the Milky Way, and a new field of research was born. Over the next decades, researchers used a variety of relatively small radio telescopes — more precisely, radio antennas — to explore the universe.
Lovell was convinced that a much larger antenna would be even more useful and single-mindedly set out to build one.
After World War II, he had managed to obtain a surplus army mobile radar unit and two trailers full of surplus equipment that he jury-rigged into a small radio observatory at the University of Manchester. Nearby electric trams, however, created electrical signals that interfered with his observations.
The university had a small piece of land south of the city that had once been owned by William Jauderell, who had fought with Edward the Black Prince at Poitiers in the Hundred Years War. There, helped by two gardeners from the university’s botanical gardens, Lovell set up a primitive radio observatory on a high area of ground, or bank.
He soon realized the inadequacy of his facility and began planning a much larger, steerable radio telescope. His initial estimate was that the facility would cost about 60,000 pounds, but that proved wildly optimistic. When groundbreaking began in 1952, the estimated cost had grown to 335,000 pounds, to be shared equally by the British government’s Department of Scientific and Industrial Research and the Nuffield Foundation, a charitable trust founded by William Morris, Lord Nuffield, the founder of Morris Motors Ltd.
The eventual cost proved to be double that, and Lovell struggled to find funds. At one point, he faced jail over an outstanding debt of 1 million pounds. The total debt was finally retired in 1960, when Lovell received a call from Lord Nuffield, who offered to pay the balance of 50,000 pounds.
From 1957 to 1981, Lovell headed teams that made powerful new discoveries. In 1960, the radio telescope was the first to sight quasars, mysterious star-like objects that shine with the brilliance of 100 million suns. Almost two-thirds of the known pulsars — rapidly rotating neutron stars that emit radio waves — were discovered at Jodrell Bank.
The telescope routinely tracked both Soviet and American spacecraft, providing valuable intelligence. In 1960, it transmitted a signal to the American Pioneer V deep space probe, then 22 million miles away, releasing it from its booster rocket. No other antenna could have done so. It was also used in the search for the Beagle 2 lander on Mars.
Alfred Charles Bernard Lovell was born Aug. 31, 1913, at Oldland Common in Gloucestershire. His mother played cricket, and he developed an interest in the sport that he maintained throughout his life. He was also an accomplished musician.
Lovell attended Bristol University, receiving his doctorate in physics in 1936, before taking a position at Manchester, where he spent the rest of his academic career.
During World War II, he worked on radar systems at Britain’s Telecommunications Research Establishment in Dorset and later at Malvern. He was in charge of a team that developed the H2S radar system for airborne, ground-scanning radar. Among other applications, the radar improved the accuracy of bombing missions and allowed aircraft to detect submarines that surfaced at night, a development that dramatically cut shipping losses in the Atlantic Ocean.
He was appointed to the Order of the British Empire in 1946 for his wartime work and knighted in 1961 for his work in radio astronomy.
Lovell’s wife of 56 years, the former Joyce Chesterman, died in 1993. He is survived by four children, 14 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren.
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