‘A sad and grateful RIP’

Columnist Emma Unsworth pays tribute to space pioneer Sir Bernard Lovell

I was all stoked to write about the blinding success that was the Olympics this week, about how I’ve seen it turn even the staunchest naysayers into blubbering wrecks (myself included, and all it took was a flabbergasted 15-year-old Lithuanian swimmer with rainbow-painted fingernails). But then something – well, two things – happened that affected me more, as a citizen of Earth. We landed on Mars again (this time with a colour camera), and Sir Bernard Lovell died, aged 98.

Sir Bernard Lovell, godfather of Jodrell Bank

Lovell was the leader of the team that built Jodrell Bank radio telescope near Knutsford, Cheshire, in the 1950s. I was at Jodrell just a few months ago, ogling it as I always do. Looming against the clouds, bone-coloured with weather and age, it’s always struck me (like that eerie, AT-AT-like advance of wind turbines just off the M66 near Burnley) as somehow outside of time, a feat of human engineering that points to the future – and, literally, to the past – so detachedly as to render me almost peaceful with a feeling of passive cosmic irrelevance.

The telescope has shed much light on the origins of life, the universe and everything. Did you know that almost two-thirds of all known pulsars were detected by Jodrell Bank scientists? Sending out a sad and grateful RIP to Sir Bernard, godfather of radio astronomy.

And so to Mars, where a new robot is currently roving the surface, zapping rocks and testing the dust for complex carbon compounds, known when they’re at home as Evidence of Life. NASA celebrated the nail-bitingly precise landing last Monday with lots of jumping around and hugging at Ground Control. As someone quipped on Twitter, NASA won gold in the 56,000-million metres.

Curiosity has sent back its first colour photos – which look a bit like holiday photos taken by a toddler who’s swiped the camera from the beachbag and managed a few out-of-focus but endearing snaps. But still, they’re fricking photos of Mars.

Being a fan of rovers and robots, I hope Curiosity gets to hook up with Opportunity at some point, a NASA rover there since 2004 (and on its own since 2009 when its sister rover Spirit took a tumble). I like to think of them nestled in a crater, cheers’ing shots of battery acid and swopping anecdotes from the Old Planet.

Because they’re huge gambles, these things. Curiosity cost $2.5 billion. Jodrell Bank cost over ten times Lovell’s initial estimate of £60,000, becoming the bane of Parliament with its rocketing debts (the critics were finally silenced in 1957 when the telescope detected and began tracking Sputnik – complete with carrier missile).

But I don’t see space exploration as an expensive luxury. I was thinking as I was watching the new Olympic records flash up one after the other during the athletics: are athletes just going to keep getting faster, forever? (Which is a childish question now I see it written down. But they are, right?) I don’t know if that’s progress, but it feels like it is. And I don’t know if the £9 billion Olympics were the right thing for London to do this year economically (there were certainly grave problems in their organisation) – but they do, ultimately, feel like something to be proud of.

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