You are here

Visit to Chilbolton Observatory

Chilbolton Observatory

Mike Ryan recalls a Mensan visit to Chilbolton Observatory.


A group of twenty five Mensans and their guests set off into the heart of the Hampshire countryside to visit Chilbolton Observatory, built on the site of a World War 2 airfield in 1967.


Seven of us met up for lunch at ‘The White Lion’ in Wherwell, prior to the visit to the nearby Chilbolton Observatory. They seemed to specialize in home-made pies; although there were other items on the menu. After a pleasant couple of hours we set off in convoy along the country lanes, hoping that we were following someone who knew where they were going. Sure enough, we arrived at the site and were directed to Reception. We were lucky to be visiting the site, as they only arrange visits for members of the public every 3 years. Consequently there were a lot of people visiting at the same time, so we were sent through in small groups as we arrived. This did mean however, that we did not all go through together in one group.


There were five main areas to visit, and at each one we were met by enthusiastic volunteers, who explained the operation to us. We saw the Low Frequency Array, which was a number of aerials in an apparently random, but actually in a carefully calculated distribution. These communicated via a local control room with other sites across North West Europe, effectively creating a radio telescope with a diameter equivalent to the distance between Chilbolton and Sweden, with a central processor located in the Netherlands. We then saw the 6 metre dish, which was actually moving (tracking a satellite), as we watched. Next on the list was the star of the show, the 25 metre steerable dish, which was also moving as we watched. There was also the 500 metre range, which had a transmit cabin and a receive cabin at either end; used for measuring the effect of atmospheric refraction on the propagation of microwaves. We finished the visit in the radar control room, with its numerous computers and screens.


The work of the observatory included providing data for experimental studies into weather and climate, tracking satellites, detecting space debris and in-orbit testing of global navigation satellites,

Overall, I found it to be a very interesting visit; as did those that I spoke to.


See more photographs from the event in the Gallery.