Chilbolton Observatory celebrates 50 outstanding years

STFC’s Chilbolton Observatory is celebrating 50 years of spectacular science and achievement as the one of the world’s most advanced radar research facilities.

From modelling weather patterns and climate change to satellite tracking and measuring the Sun, since its opening in 14 April 1967 the Chilbolton Observatory has enabled world leading research in meteorology, space science, radio communication and astronomy, and continues to do so today.

LOFAR opening

LOFAR opening: The official opening ceremony for LOFAR. Chilbolton Observatory’s Derek McKay-Bukowski (left), Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell and STFC’s former CEO, Professor John Womersley.

Run by STFC’s RAL Space, Chilbolton Observatory was once an airfield and operational base during the Second World War. At its heart lies a landmark, the Chilbolton Advanced Meteorological radar. At 25 metres wide, it is one of the world’s largest fully steerable meteorological radar dishes – big and sensitive enough to pick up the faintest of signals from radio stars in space, whilst providing key data on atmospheric weather and radiation conditions for study by research bodies across the world.

Thanks to this powerful radar, and an increasingly impressive suite of sophisticated research instruments and upgrades over the years, the Chilbolton Observatory is renowned for its outstanding capabilities in weather research – from analysing and predicting storms and flooding, to measuring the size of raindrops, and even tracking flying insects to measure wind speed. One of its first high profile projects, the Millimetre Wave Experimental Range led to a better understanding into the formation of rain storms, and the Cloud Lidar and Radar Experiment in the 90’s, which was funded by ESA, involved three aircraft and the first successful sampling of the full spectrum of cloud types.

Satellite tracking and space surveillance have featured prominently throughout Chilbolton’s history, from when it picked up the first navigation signals from Galileo’s experimental satellite 23,000 kilometres away, to ongoing surveillance of satellites and debris to predict collisions in space. In 2015, Chilbolton Observatory tracked the re-entry of the International Space Station’s ATV-5 supply vehicle at the end of its mission, and last year became an official contributor to the EU Space Surveillance and Tracking programme.

LOFAR opening

Tracking the re-entry of the International Space Station’s ATV-5 supply vehicle.
(Credit: ESA)

Until recently, Chilbolton received data as part of NASA’s twin spacecraft STEREO mission, during which two satellites, 120 million miles away either side of the sun, provided a totally new aspect on solar activity through tracking its coronal mass ejections from two viewpoints simultaneously, and studying their effects on Earth’s environment.

LOFAR, one of Chilbolton’s most high profile and current collaborative projects that it has been involved with to date, combines a field of 192 static telescopes that work alongside the main radar dish, enabling it to look in all directions at once. As part of the wider international LOFAR project, it will help to answer some of the fundamental questions of cosmology, from detecting when the first stars in the Universe were formed to reveal more about how the Universe evolved by observing distant galaxies.

Director of STFC RAL Space Dr Chris Mutlow said “It is a proud moment for STFC, RAL Space and wider User Community celebrating this momentous 50th Anniversary of the Chilbolton Observatory, and in particular those who have contributed to its growth, the many achievements, and amazing science that have taken place there during that time. We look forward with great anticipation to the coming 50 years and celebrating the continued successes of the facility and the dedicated staff who work there for a long time to come”.

Science and Technology Facilities Council Switchboard: 01793 442000