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My travels took me recently to Jodrell Bank, one of the World’s first radio telescopes. The 76m dish (which can be seen from 30km away) is a famous landmark in the UK, bound-up with the Space Race and often used in TV programmes (fictional and non-fictional) related to science.
The Manchester University astronomers picked this site because the electric trams of the city caused too much interference to their experiments. Today also it is a “quiet zone” and Jodrell Bank visitors are encouraged to power-off their mobiles. In any case, the mobile coverage is poor; presumably because the cellcos have agreed not to come too close with their cell towers anyway.
One story that I hadn’t heard before was about Luna 9, the unmanned probe sent to the moon in 1966 by the USSR. The scientists at Jodrell Bank pointed the telescope at Luna 9 and managed to record some of its transmissions. Thinking that the stream sounded a bit like a fax, they quickly borrowed a fax machine (fax was an exotic and rare technology then) and rigged it up so that they could play the Luna message into the fax machine. To everyone’s surprise, what came out was a close-up photograph of the moon, which was subsequently published in the UK newspapers, and all over the world.
If you read my last blog, you’ll know that I was an enthusiast for the FORTH language years ago when I was a student. Interestingly, the FORTH language was written by Charles H. Moore, who needed a portable programming language for controlling radio telescopes. I wonder if there is any FORTH code running there still at Jodrell Bank?