Fifty years ago this week, the Daily Express landed a major scoop by revealing the first picture ever taken from the surface of another world – the Moon.
One of the newspaper’s picture-receiving machines was rushed to the UK’s famous Jodrell Bank observatory in Cheshire to intercept and decode secret signals being transmitted by a Soviet spacecraft.
To their amazement, they saw appear a close-up of a rock-strewn, desolate lunar landscape.
It was the height of the Cold War and before the first Apollo Moon landings. Astronomers at Jodrell Bank, led by its director Bernard Lovell, had been tracking the Russian probe, called Luna 9, with their giant radio telescope dish following its launch from the Soviets’ launch site at Baikonur in what is now Kazakhstan on January 31, 1966.
Signals from the probe were received until 6.45pm on February 3 when they stopped abruptly. It was assumed the probe had crashed like others before it.
But then, to the astronomers’ astonishment, fresh signals started arriving in bursts from the Moon. The observatory’s public affairs officer, Reginald Lascelles, had worked in the newspaper industry and recognised the sound as resembling that used to transmit images, like an early form of fax machine, across the Atlantic via early American balloon satellites.
Jodrell Bank did not possess such a modern wonder. As a scientific laboratory, they usually displayed the radio signals they received from space in the form of line graphs made by paper strip recorders. So Professor Lovell appealed to the Daily Express for help. The paper had just the right machine in its busy Manchester offices and was happy to rush it over to lend to the space scientists.
When the Jodrell scientists ran their amplified recording of the faint signals from the Moon through the photo machine, they all realised they had a major scoop. For out of the machine came a literally out-of-this-world photo of the view from the lunar surface. The Daily Express’s exclusive picture went round the world, angering Russia’s space officials in the process.
Jodrell Bank’s present director, Professor Tim O’Brien, said: “The Russians were far more successful than the Americans in the early days of space exploration and Jodrell had been instrumental in tracking their efforts and Luna 9 was the latest target. The scientists at Jodrell were eavesdropping on the Russian spacecraft’s transmissions using the 250ft Mark 1 telescope, now the Lovell Telescope. One of them thought the data stream sounded like an early type of fax signal.
“One was borrowed from the Daily Express offices in Manchester, plugged into the back.of the telescope and out scrolled a close up photo of the Moon’s surface! It made it onto the front pages the next day which rather annoyed the Russians as it scooped their own release – but then Jodrell had been able to help them before by confirming their claims when others had doubted their successes in space.”
The Soviet authorities had wanted to release the image themselves at a time of their own choosing. Their Soviet Academy of Sciences protested about their premature release, adding a complaint that that the photo’s dimensions had been slightly stretched, making the rocks looks more jagged. This was due to the ratio of the horizontal to vertical used by Russia not conforming to the international standard. Jodrell Bank’s boffins had to guess the ratio of the dimensions.
But in the ensuing row, Professor Lovell – later Sir Bernard Lovell, who died in 2012, aged 98 – told the Russians that there was enormous interest in pictures from the Moon and that the images received with the help of the Daily Express correctly showed the nature of the lunar terrain.
One thing the picture did was spark a debate about whether the Moon’s surface was solid or covered in deep dust. This was of vital concern because NASA was planning to send astronauts to the Moon with the Apollo programme later that decade and needed to be sure that they would not sink into a lunar quicksand!
Jodrell Bank’s huge and iconic radio dish in the countryside outside Manchester was the brainchild of Sir Bernard.
It was built in the grounds of Manchester University’s botanical gardens in the Fifties to study the newly emerging science of radio astronomy. But on October 12, 1957, within days of opening, it achieved worldwide fame by tracking the rocket that carried the first satellite into space, the secretive Soviet Union’s Sputnik.
In the years that followed, Jodrell Bank’s scientists continued to act as the West’s ear on Soviet space activities, tracking a number of satellites, plus probes fired at the Moon, Venus and Mars.
The US Military were very interested in the power of the 250-ft wide steerable radio dish as an ear on their Cold War rival’s activities in the Space Race. Sir Bernard did not always leap into action to help them. When the Soviets launched unmanned probe Luna 2 to crash on the Moon in September 1959, it was a Saturday and the professor was just leaving to pursue his other great love by playing cricket.
One of his children signalled him to stop his car, saying he was urgently wanted on the phone. The duty controller at Jodrell Bank told Lovell that the Russians had launched a rocket that would reach the Moon the next evening. The astronomer insisted on going ahead with his match before heading to the observatory to find out more.
The next day they monitored the Luna 2 probe as it crashed into the Moon, becoming the first man-made object to reach another world. Subsequent attempts to soft-land a probe on the Moon all failed until Luna 9.