For more than 50 years, it has scoured the vast depths of space for the invisible signatures of cosmic radiation – but the Jodrell Bank radio telescope could be closed down in a drive to slash millions of pounds from Britain's physical sciences budget.
Radio astronomers have been warned that the centrepiece of their observing network in the UK might have to be shut to save £2.7m a year. It is part of an effort to meet an unexpected £80m shortfall in the annual budget of the Government's Science and Technology Facilities Council (STSC). Yesterday, scientists said the decision to close Jodrell Bank – an icon of British science – would be an act of unbelievable short-sightedness, given that it is just about to benefit from an £8m upgrade which was supposed to secure its future, along with a network of other radio telescopes linked together via a system of optical fibres.
Closing the two radio telescopes at Jodrell Bank, near Macclesfield, Cheshire, and its associated dishes at Cambridge, Pickmere and Darnhall in Cheshire, Knockin in Shropshire and Defford in Worcestershire, would in effective end Britain's pioneering position in radio astronomy, the experts warned.
Together, the telescopes form the Multi-Element Radio Linked Interferometer Network (Merlin), which has just had a multimillion pound upgrade – known as e-Merlin – so that they can effectively act in unison as a single, super-wide-aperture telescope with a resolving power to match that of the Hubble Space Telescope.
Professor Simon Garrington, the director of the Merlin National Facility, stressed that no decision to close Jodrell Bank had yet been taken, but news that it was on a list of "lowest priority" projects identified in a funding review by the STSC had come as shock. "This is not a decision but a recommendation and now there will be a consultation process," he said. "But there are bigger strategic questions, such as do you want to close Britain's only radio-astronomy facility at a time when it has just gone through a massive upgrade and when it forms part of a bigger international operation?"
Jodrell Bank has already been chosen as the headquarters of a much bigger international project known as the Square Kilometre Array, in which dozens of radio dishes will be connected at a remote facility to be built either in South Africa or Australia at a cost of about £1bn.
Closing Jodrell Bank would jeopardise Britain's role in that project because it would put a question mark over the UK's involvement in the field of radio astronomy, said Professor Philip Diamond, director of Jodrell Bank. "This is not good news. We are heavily involved in the development of the Square Kilometre Array and withdrawing 10 years before it begins is a very grave prospect. We were put on the low priority list and I find that incredible. We are coming to the end of the upgrade and, when it comes on stream, we will be one of the most powerful telescopes on the planet, so it is unbelievable.
"The whole thing cannot be turned around because the potential impact on astronomy would be huge. We are trying to understand how galaxies are formed, how stars are born. These are all fundamental to how life evolved and we have to understand the whole sequence of creation.
"It is all complimentary to other areas of science and, if we withdraw from Merlin and threaten Jodrell Bank, it means the UK will effectively withdraw from radio astronomy."
Jodrell Bank was established in the 1950s by one of the pioneers of radio astronomy, Sir Bernard Lovell. He used his knowledge of radar developed during the Second World War to build instruments for detecting cosmic sources of electromagnetic radiation in the non-visible part of the spectrum.
Sir Bernard proposed a 250ft-wide parabolic dish built on a moveable structure which could be pointed to any part of the sky to detect radio waves emanating from space. The costs spiralled but his vision paid off when, in 1957, the radio telescope was able to track the third stage of the Soviet rocket that launched Sputnik 1 – the first man-made satellite to be put in orbit.
In 1959, the telescope received the first pictures transmitted from the far side of the Moon, which had until then remained out of sight. In subsequent years, it had a temporary role in the Cold War as a means to detect intercontinental ballistic missile launches. But Jodrell Bank's real benefits to science became apparent in the 1960s, when it played a key role in the discovery and understanding of quasi-stellar objects, or quasars – some of the most distant and luminous objects in the known universe.
Other discoveries followed, such as pulsars – the intermittently shining objects that result from fast rotating neutron stars – and a new class of objects known as gravitational lenses, when the gravity of stars and galaxies bend light in the same way as an optical lens refracts light. Gravitational lenses were first predicted by Albert Einstein more than 100 years ago.
A spokesman for the STFC said that a month-long consultation about its list of low-priority projects would be discussed at a meeting next month, when a final decision on cuts is likely to be taken. "It is still all in play," he added. "But given the constraints on our budget, we have to come up with a budget that fits into our financial envelope."
Searching the skies
* Jodrell Bank was originally the site of Manchester University's botanical centre.
* It was chosen by Sir Bernard Lovell because of its quiet location.
* The Mark 1A telescope is 250ft in diameter and was renamed the Lovell telescope in 1987 in honour of its creator.
* Jodrell Bank is now a Grade-I listed building.
* In 1993, Nasa asked Jodrell Bank to search for its lost Mars Observer spacecraft, the only instrument at the time capable of carrying out the task.
* Ten years later, Jodrell Bank searches for the Beagle 2 spacecraft, again lost on Mars.Reuse content