Goonhilly on The Lizard celebrates its role in the Apollo Moon Landings 50 years ago, and looks to the future.
Words by Jane Reynolds
The sight of Goonhilly’s satellite dishes is one the people of the Lizard have taken for granted for nearly 60 years. These monumental forms loom out of a landscape of wide skies and heathland as if they’ve always been there, rising from the midst of what is now a Nature Reserve. It’s easy to forget this site has played an historic part in space exploration and communications – and that it continues to do so today, reaching ever deeper into space.
In July, Goonhilly will be in the spotlight again as it marks half a century since the Apollo Moon Landings, and the role Antenna One – better known as Arthur – played in relaying those grainy pictures to the world. Apollo50 will celebrate the anniversary with a weekend of music, science, art and culture.
Arthur was built to link Earth with the Telstar satellite in 1962, and over the next two decades other giant dishes joined him, some given similarly Arthurian names. Now there are dozens of antennas scattered across the site, from Merlin, the biggest, to structures similar in size to domestic satellite dishes.
For a while in the early 2000s, it looked as if transmission could be over and out for Goonhilly, when owners BT announced its closure. But the dishes were saved and bought by Goonhilly Earth Station Ltd, and investment has rolled in ever since, most notably £24m last year from billionaire British financial services tycoon Peter Hargreaves. The dishes have been restarted and repurposed to fit the science and needs of the 21st century; they now look into deep space and steer satellites providing broadband to countries in Africa and the Middle East, while the wider site hosts a number of other businesses and research opportunities.
Goonhilly business manager Dr Kat Hickey has an overview of what the future holds for the satellite station, and says the place is at the start of a significant period of growth. “So far in its history, Goonhilly has focussed on near-space communications – the sort of technology which links Earth with satellites and bounces the signals back,” she explains. “But in 2018, we won a contract with the European Space Agency to provide Europe’s first deep-space tracking services on a commercial basis.”
Previously if an entrepreneur had wanted to plan travel beyond Earth, to an asteroid or even Mars, they would have to borrow antennae from the likes of NASA. In contrast, once one of Goonhilly’s giant dishes has completed its upgrade, it will provide fast data links to missions more than two million kilometres away.
But given these links with Europe and with Brexit around the corner, are there fears that Goonhilly’s expansion could be slowed or even halted? Kat Hickey rejects this concern emphatically. “It’s true we’ve received ERDF money in the past, as well as working with the ESA, but our business model does not rely on it. We will be fine whatever the final outcome with Europe”.
A case in point is the fact that Goonhilly has also built a new Data Centre which will take advantage of Cornwall’s proximity to the subsea cables which cross the Atlantic. “We have transatlantic subsea cables landing on site which we can link with satellite communications and fibre,” says Kat. “The extra seconds, or even parts per second, that we can shave off the time it takes data to travel can be vital in giving markets in London an edge.”
Along with purely commercial enterprises, Goonhilly is also working closely with a consortium of universities in the field of radio astronomy. Two giant dishes – Goonhilly 1 (the famous and now quite elderly Arthur) and Goonhilly 3 – are being converted into dual-use radio telescopes. Just as optical telescopes collect light which can be converted into images of faraway objects, so radio telescopes collect weak radio light waves.
The plan is also to help countries in Africa and Central America to drive economic development by bolstering science skills. Goonhilly is a partner in DARA – Development in Africa with Radio Astronomy. The idea is to renovate similar old antennae and put them back into use in the same way they have in Cornwall.
At its zenith in the early 1970s, Goonhilly was the world’s biggest satellite earth station, employing around 300 people. It even enjoyed a place in popular culture when it was featured in The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. Goonhilly’s revival is seeing a sharp increase again in numbers of highly-skilled people employed on the Lizard, and Apollo50 will insert a further blast of culture into its story with acts including Public Service Broadcasting and Orbital lighting up the antennae this summer.
The one-day festival Apollo50 festival on July 20 will celebrate Neil Armstrong’s “one giant leap for mankind” with a full education and entertainment programme including appearances by The Radiophonic Workshop and The Bowie Lounge. For further details, visit https://apollo50.co.uk