Since opening on 14 April 1967, the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s (STFC) Chilbolton Observatory has been utilising state-of-the-art instrumentation to make observations of weather and space.
The observatory, which is run by STFC’s RAL Space, enables world-leading research into meteorology, radio communications and astronomy.
Director of RAL Space Dr Chris Mutlow said: “Celebrating this momentous anniversary is a proud moment for STFC, RAL Space and the community of users who access the facilities.
“It is particularly significant for those who have contributed to its growth, and enjoyed the many achievements and amazing science that have taken place there.
“We look forward with great anticipation to the coming 50 years and celebrating the continued successes of the facility, which are made possible thanks to the dedicated staff.”
The site was an RAF airfield during World War Two that was adapted for the US Airforce and their heavy bombers. After the war, the airfield was used by local aviation companies for aircraft testing and saw some of the UK’s earliest supersonic flights. It was decommissioned in 1963 and construction of the Chilbolton Observatory began in 1964.
The most noticeable characteristic of the site is the fully steerable 25 metre antenna, known colloquially as ‘the dish’. Its great size makes it sensitive enough to pick up the faintest of signals emitted from radio stars in space, but also as a radar to detect satellites in Earth orbit several thousand kilometre above, or rain and cloud several hundred kilometres away. Since its inception the dish has proved to be a continually adapted tool to provide key data for researchers around the world.
Robin Watson was a member of AEI's Apprentice Training School at Trafford Park and spent three months helping to build the dish. He said: "I remember that the construction process didn't go completely smoothly. The 400 tonne dish was designed to pivot vertically so that it could point in any direction from straight upwards to directly at the horizon.
“The weight of the dish had to be counterbalanced so that it would move smoothly, and they mixed up a steel and concrete ballast to do the job. However, they didn't get the calculations for the mix quite right - the dish would move downwards all right, but couldn't be persuaded to go back up again. In the end, they had to weld steel counterweights onto the structure itself to compensate.
“I recently visited Chilbolton again and the staff were kind enough to show me round the site. I'm pleased to see that our dish is still working smoothly all these years later."
In the 1960s and 1970s, the dish supported pioneering research in radio astronomy. That work is no longer done with the 25m antenna, but since 2010, the observatory has supported radio astronomy observations with LOFAR (Low Frequency Array).
The antenna hosts the Chilbolton Advanced Meteorological Radar (CAMRa), which is the world’s largest fully steerable weather radar. Thanks to this powerful radar, and an ever-growing suite of sophisticated research instruments, the Chilbolton Facility for Atmospheric and Radar Research (CFARR) is renowned for its capabilities in atmospheric and weather measurements, thus supporting research to improve numerical models used to analyse and forecast storms and flooding.
Station Manager at the Chilbolton Observatory, Darcy Ladd, who has worked at the observatory for the past 23 years, said: “All of the people who work here, including me, are really proud of the contributions the Observatory has made to science and engineering. We look forward to supporting more research for years to come.
“I would also like to thank the people of Chilbolton and Wherwell for their continuing support and making us feel welcome in the local community.”