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Jodrell Bank and the Moon

Jodrell Bank's Lovell Telescope (Image courtesy of the Jodrell Centre for Astrophysics, University of Manchester)
Jodrell Bank received the first photographs taken on the Moon

As the world recalls one particular 'giant leap for mankind,' we look at the key role played by Jodrell Bank in the race to the Moon.

On 21 July 1969, astronaut Neil Armstrong put a space boot down into the lunar dust and uttered his now unforgettable words: 'That's one small step for Man…'

Back on Earth, astronomer Sir Bernard Lovell was sitting at the controls of the University of Manchester's Jodrell Bank Observatory, listening to transmissions from the Moon. And they weren't all American.

At that very moment, the Russians were trying to gatecrash the American's date with history by putting an unmanned spacecraft on the Moon on the same day!

Moon landing

Jodrell Bank had no official role in the Apollo 11 moon landing.

Astronaut Edward 'Buzz' Aldrin on the moon

At the time of Armstrong's historic moonwalk, the moon had dipped below the horizon and television images of man's first steps on the moon were relayed via the Parkes Observatory in Australia - as told in the film, The Dish.

However, while all eyes were on Armstrong and the Apollo 11 mission, astronomers at Jodrell Bank were busy monitoring the movements of a different spacecraft orbiting the Moon on the same day.

Data captured by the Lovell radio telescope confirmed that a Soviet spacecraft Luna 9 had actually crash-landed onto the Moon at 15:50 on 21 July - just hours before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin lifted off.

The drama of this 'space race' has only recently come to light with the discovery of an archive recording of discussions in Jodrell Bank's control room.

'Space Age'

Sir Bernard Lovell, founder of the Jodrell Bank Observatory, can be heard narrating events before noting a change in the orbit of Luna 15 to take it closer to the US landing site.

Sir Bernard Lovell - image courtesy of Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics, University of Manchester

People in the Control Room can then be heard exclaiming 'it's landing' and 'it's going down much too fast' in the final moments before it crashes.

A voice is later heard saying: "I say, this has really been drama of the highest order."

It was not the first time that Jodrell Bank had played its part in the space race.

Although never intended as a space tracking facility, Jodrell carried out important work in the 1950s and 1960s and was highly prized by both the American and Soviet space programmes.

  • October 1957: the first act of the Lovell Telescope was to track the carrier rocket of Sputnik I, the first artificial satellite.
  • September 1959: when the Russians fired the very first rocket to reach the Moon they telexed its flight details to Jodrell Bank so they could monitor its progress and announce its success to the world. (Sir Bernard delayed work on this to finish playing cricket one Saturday afternoon).
  • October 1959: Jodrell Bank received the first photographs of the previously unseen 'dark side' of the moon.
  • February 1966: when an unmanned Soviet space craft Luna 9 radioed back the first photograph taken on the Moon, it was Jodrell Bank that managed to intercept the image of the crater-covered surface - using a borrowed fax machine from the Daily Express offices in Manchester!

Astronomer Tim O'Brien said: "Jodrell was there at the dawn of the Space Age and, after its early efforts in the lunar missions, continues to play a significant role in the exploration of space."

Talking on the Moon
15 Jul 09 |  People & Places
Jodrell Bank's Cold War mission
09 Jun 09 |  History


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