Jodrell Bank work threatened by housing plans, say scientists

14.02.2015 14:50

One of Britain’s most ambitious astronomy
projects is under threat due to a large
housing development being planned
nearby, scientists have warned.
Prof Simon Garrington, director of Jodrell
Bank observatory, said proposals to build
119 houses just over a mile from the Lovell
telescope in Cheshire would seriously
compromise observations of deep space.
Among the projects at risk would be an
attempt to make the first experimental
observations of gravity waves, ripples in
space-time predicted by Einstein’s general
theory of relativity.
The astronomers estimate that, if
approved, the development would increase
background interference levels by about
10% to a level exceeding an internationally
agreed threshold for “detrimental
interference” to radio astronomy
“Many housing proposals don’t cause
problems,” said Garrington. “It’s the ones
that are largest and closest that are the
most dangerous.”
The electromagnetic signals astronomers
are looking for are barely distinguishable
from background noise coming from
sources such as electricity lines and mobile
The latest development site, in the village
of Goostrey, is particularly problematic
because it would fall in the line of sight of
the telescope’s observations of distant
pulsars – incredibly dense neutron stars
that send out rotating beams of radio
The signals from a pulsar are picked up as
regular “blips” as the star spins on its axis
– sometimes as quickly as hundreds of
times a second. Astronomers believe that
irregularities in the blips could indicate
that space-time is being stretched or
compressed in gravity waves, but spotting
such tiny differences would require
incredibly precise observations.
Measuring gravitational waves directly
would be widely viewed as a signifcant
scientific advance, and teams around the
world are racing to be the first to claim the
“Jodrell Bank is still the third largest
single telescope on Earth and the fact that
it’s been making continuous observations
of pulsars for 40 years is a huge
advantage,” said Garrington.
Last year, cosmologists from Harvard’s
Bicep2 (Background Imaging of Cosmic
Extragalactic Polarisation) telescope at the
south pole announced they had observed
patterns of light consistent with gravity
waves, but it later emerged that the data
was probably explained by space dust
Martin Barstow, president of the Royal
Astronomical Society, said that there was
sometimes a misconception that Jodrell
Bank was now largely simply of heritage
value. “It’s not just something to look at,”
he said. “It’s still doing high-quality
science. You’re looking for a signal above a
background of noise and if that
background gets bigger, the less you can
Garrington said that the increased number
of houses in nearby villages had already
seriously degraded the centre’s ability to
carry out new science. Despite discovering
many of the first pulsars in the 1970s,
Jodrell Bank is no longer capable of
searching for new ones due to increased
radio interference. “In many observations
it is the main factor which limits the
quality of the data,” said Garrington.
In principle, Jodrell Bank is protected by a
statutory consultation zone, within which
the new developments fall. However, in
the past developers have successfully
appealed against objections submitted by
the observatory.
The science minister, Greg Clark, said:
“Cheshire East council must ensure that, in
line with protections set out in the
national planning policy framework, any
new housing developments do not
adversely impact on the important
scientific mission of Jodrell Bank.”
In a detailed mapping exercise, Jodrell
Bank scientists have shown that the
majority of radio interference, from
sources including electricity cables and
mobile phones, comes from neighbouring
villages, such as Goostrey, rather than
more densely populated but more distant
locations in central Manchester.
Councillor Michael Jones, leader of
Cheshire East council, said that the
scientists’ concerns would be carefully
considered. “Cheshire East is keen to
promote the tremendous scientific
potential of Jodrell Bank and to ensure that
an appropriate balance is struck between
providing the homes that the country
needs and the economic and educational
benefits that the telescope provides,” he
Martyn Twigg, managing director of
Gladman Developments, said the company
had sought discussions with scientists
before formalising the proposals, but had
no response. “We have made several
requests for the detailed technical
evidence which apparently substantiates
their objection so that we can review it –
but so far no information has been
provided,” he said. “We have also provided
Cheshire East council with an
appropriately worded planning condition,
which we feel would address the
observatory’s concerns.”