Geek's Guide

Suffering satellites! Goonhilly's ARTHUR REBORN for SPAAAACE

BT's sat comms site repurposed

By SA Mathieson


Geek's Guide to Britain Big data? Pah. Arthur is big hardware. He weighs in at 1,118 tonnes, has a diameter of 25.9 metres and is 52 years old. From his home, a high plateau on Cornwall’s remote Lizard peninsula – as far south as you can go on the island of Great Britain without falling off – he has played his part in Space Age history, appropriate given he resembles one of its rockets in scale and riveting style.

Officially known as Goonhilly 1, Arthur is one of the world’s first satellite communication dishes. This is the dish that received the first transatlantic television pictures from the Telstar satellite on 11 July 1962, tracking it as it crossed the sky in just 22 minutes. And, in a very British touch, it is a Grade II listed building.

Goonhilly was one of the world’s first three satellite earth stations. Until a few years ago, it was also a west Cornwall tourist attraction run by BT, where visitors could see Arthur and friends and learn about the wonder of telecommunications, particularly those run by BT.

On a rainy summer day in west Cornwall, the Goonhilly Satellite Earth Station Experience with visitor centre was the harassed parent’s last best hope.

Improvements in satellite technology and the renaissance of submarine cables meant Arthur was seen as a high-maintenance dinosaur and in 2006, BT decided to switch its international communications to submarine cables and two smaller dish farms in Herefordshire and London.

BT closed the visitor centre and planned to convert much of the site into a windfarm. Only Arthur’s listed building status got in the way of its demolition.

Arthur now has a new owner – Goonhilly Earth Station Ltd (GES) – and Goonhilly is being repurposed for space exploration and other specialist applications. Arthur is about to start a new career in space science, as part of a project run by Britain’s universities, 50 years after Telstar.

There are even plans for a new visitor centre. This is not open yet and – with the exception of a Segway course next to Arthur, £30 per person for 90 minutes – Goonhilly is currently closed to the public. But GES agreed to give The Register an early look at what it is doing in this remote corner of Britain.

Driving the ruler-straight eastern perimeter road past the offices [not officers] of the rather high-concept for a taxi-firm named Telstar Taxis, Goonhilly feels forbidding and deserted. The entrance barriers look like they guard a secret site, and a car looks small in a holding space designed for lorries. So far, this feels like a scene from a 1980s government conspiracy drama.

Arthur: one of the world’s first satellite communication dishes. Photo: SA Mathieson

The General Post Office, forerunner of BT, chose this site for its position on the highest ground on the Lizard peninsula, with clear views west across the Atlantic, as well as to the south and east.

There are very few buildings nearby, the air is unpolluted, the weather generally good and there is little electrical interference. Geologically, the site’s hard bedrock made it suitable for heavyweights like Arthur. The air feels strangely foreign, thanks to the Gulf Stream bringing moist warm currents up from the tropics.

BT continues to use the site for submarine cables – one of the most important, SeaWeMe3 that forwards traffic to Europe, the middle East and Asia, calls in at Goonhilly. It also continues to run the site’s security, meaning I have to check in with a BT guard behind a glass screen to make progress. My name is on the list, so equipped with a plastic badge I drive along more deserted road, with signs in the swirly font that BT discarded several years ago.

The Edge of Darkness vibe lifts on reaching Goonhilly’s control centre – which on my visit, in blazing autumnal sunshine, featured glaziers fitting new windows while listening to Steve Wright on Radio 2.

When re-opened, visitors will be able to watch the work inside the control centre, hence the new windows. Inside, a team of students from nearby Falmouth University’s Alacrity graduate programme are working on developing and building a multiplayer game that will allow teams of four people to control a virtual space mission from Nvidia Shield gaming tablets.

When the centre reopens, families and suits in corporate groups will be able to escape rainy days in west Cornwall by saving the International Space Station – or creating Gravity-style orbital havoc.

NASA back up

Ian Jones is chief executive of GES and he designed and built some of Goonhilly’s equipment when he worked for British computer pioneer Ferranti. For my trip, I spoke to Jones; he tells me that when BT announced the site’s closure, he and former colleagues saw “an amazing potential” to turn it into a mixed-use site, taking advantage of the equipment and infrastructure already in place. The dish’s monstrous size makes it ideal for capturing and helping track signals from deep space – both natural and artificial, Jones says.

In January 2011, GES agreed with BT to lease the antennas with an option to buy the whole site. Three years later, having increased business and raised private equity funding, it exercised that option. The deal includes BT leasing back a few areas of Goonhilly, including the part that houses its subsea cable station.

A dish waiting assembly for Goonhilly's new era. Photo: SA Mathieson

Arthur and Guinevere (aka Goonhilly 3) are joining a dispersed group of dishes known as an interferometer network – appropriately called e-Merlin – run by a consortium of British universities, with antennas at Jodrell Bank in Cheshire - also a stop on the Geek’s Guide tour - and in Cambridge.

Goonhilly has agreed with the UK’s Joint Academic Network (JANET) to install a dedicated 10Gb/s fibre link to Jodrell Bank, and Manchester University will fit a new receiver to Arthur in 2015. GES is sponsoring a student at Oxford University to assemble a cryostatic receiver for Guinevere.

Using a network of antennas will enable scientists to reduce noise from local interference in the atmosphere by combining their signals. This amplifies the signals they all receive from deep space, while cutting the relative impact of local noise. It also greatly increases angular resolution, allowing faraway objects to be separated, through a baseline hundreds of miles wide.

Goonhilly’s location, less than a degree of longitude away from NASA’s Deep Space Network dish site in Madrid, means it can also act as an alternative to the Spanish site, and - at 50 degrees north of the equator - it is within the orbital inclination of the International Space Station. This gives Goonhilly frequent long-duration passes from such objects, allowing plenty of data to be downloaded. “We are just at a very fortuitous location,” says Jones.

Goonhilly also provides tracking and telemetry services for satellites and other earth stations. A half-a-billion dollar satellite on the fritz, with its powerful focused antennas off-target, has to rely on a low-power omnidirectional one to receive instructions to put it back on the straight and narrow. “The legacy large antennas are really good for this,” says Jones. It can also use its established calibrations to help other earth stations verify and test their antennas.

Finally, although this is something for the future, Jones thinks there is potential to communicate with vehicles in deep space. Noting India’s recent Mars probe, which it sent at a fraction of the price of previous missions, he says national agencies are starting to explore austerity in space. “The space agencies realise they can outsource,” he says, with Nasa having commissioned SpaceX to build a transporter.

Spot clean - Guinevere shows a hint of her former brigthness. Photo: SA Mathieson

Jones hopes that Goonhilly’s visitor centre, once a mainstay of Cornish tourism, will reopen in 2015 or 2016, although educational outreach work should precede this. The centre will show off Arthur and focus on space travel, with a planetarium and a simulated planetary surface rather than dwell on its past as in the hands of certain British telecommunications company. “It’s going to become a really fantastic, inspiring location for people to come,” Jones says.

It’s time for a tour, laid on by Jones especially for El Reg. Currently, the only way around Arthur is by riding a Segway on a course set up next to the dish. We start in the building at the side of the control centre; climbing up a staircase you emerge on a viewing platform for visitors taking the bus-ride around the site.

Here sits an Asus PC connected to a dongle, in turn connected to a simple radio mast, four bars of metal connected at right angles on top of the control centre’s roof. This is AmSatUK’s tracking station for FUNcube, a UK-Dutch amateur project which has involved launching two miniature satellites for use by schoolchildren.

Out on the plateau, Goonhilly looks little changed from what I actually saw a decade ago in the BT days, with many signs still using the telco’s old corporate font. But Jones does point out some differences, though. Goonhilly has said goodbye to a series of smaller dishes - Gareth, Gawain, Geraint, Galahad - built in the 1980s and 1990s for Inmarsat maritime services. However, satellite data operator Avanti has leased this part of the site and placed new antennas there, along with a sister site near Land’s End, a few miles west.

California streaming

Also gone is Tristan, built in the 1980s for TV services, and Uther, one of the station’s oldest and largest dishes at 27.4 metres diameter, built in 1968. Pad 2, the concrete base with cut-off cables on which Uther used to sit, currently has a desolate feel to it.

But the edge of Pad 2 is home to a new Goonhilly dish, set up for Californian satellite imaging start-up Planet Labs to communicate with its dozens of “doves”: small, cheap satellites launched from the International Space Station. Just a couple of metres across and within a white radome to protect it from the weather, the dish represents a welcome addition to Goonhilly’s new work. “This is part of the business we hadn’t envisaged, tracking low-orbit satellites,” says Jones.

Innovative private-sector space work looks set to be a major part of its future. It has bought eight new antennas this year, mainly small ones, but also a yet-to-be assembled 16 metre dish, which may take the place of Tristan or Uther.

The 1985 Live Aid concert was beamed internationally using Merlin's equipment. Photo: SA Mathieson

Elsewhere, several of Goonhilly’s remaining big dishes are being renovated. When I visited, the site’s most elegant dish, Guinevere – 29.6 metres in diameter, built in 1972 and a relatively light 356 tonnes – was undergoing a much-needed clean, with a small patch of white surrounded by a palette of grunge, in advance of joining Arthur in the e-Merlin interferometer network.

Nearby, is Goonhilly’s largest dish: Goonhilly 6, also known as Merlin, 32 metres in diameter and as a result of being built from aluminium weighing in at just 395 tonnes. Merlin was built in 1985 by the newly-privatised BT and still uses its original equipment, although Jones says this may be replaced. For now, the metal rows of hardware give it the feel of Dr Evil’s computer centre.

But its first use was for the opposite of supervillainry. On 13 July 1985, just 22 years and two days after Telstar’s first broadcast, Merlin relayed the Live Aid concert from Wembley Stadium to 100 countries around the world. It used to sport a giant Blue Peter badge, awarded by the public-spirited BBC children’s programme of the same name. While this was present when your correspondent visited the visitor centre in 2004, it has since vanished.

Although it is not part of the e-Merlin work, Merlin will also be converted for deep space work, and GES has already been in discussions with the UK Met Office and the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Like the other big dishes, Merlin may no longer needed for calling out around the world, so it will focus on connecting the earth to the universe.

If you’re tempted by the prospect of mastering a Segway – or if you can wangle an official or educational visit – then a trip to Goonhilly even before the new centre opens is worth it.

Site of Uther, new Planet Labs radome behind. Photo: SA Mathieson

It should be said, this is a remote spot. Chances are you’ll be in the area as part of trip, unless – of course – you already are local. Newquay is about an hour’s drive away to the north, Britain’s surf capital and under consideration by the UK Space Agency as a space port. Marazion, home to St Michael’s Mount is half an hour to the west and Penzance forty minutes, while to the north east by half and an hour is the historic naval town of Falmouth. There’s plenty of places to stay in these towns and in the more remote parts between them and Goonhilly.

The Lizard itself features Flambards theme park, the seal sanctuary at Gweek and Roskilly’s farm, which serves ice-cream and more substantial meals.

Nestled on an area of outstanding natural beauty, the huge metal structures look every bit like remnants of the first space age. If you make the trip, however, you won’t help but be inspired to see them being repurposed to serve a new era of space exploration. ®


50.03, -5.17


TR12 6LQ

Getting there

Car: from most of the UK, drive south-west along the M5 and A30, then head south on the A39 and A394 through Truro and past Falmouth. At Helston, turn south on the A3083 for the Lizard past RAF Culrose, before taking the B3293 east for Coverack. Look out for the big dishes and the BT-branded gatehouse.

Public transport: mainline train to Truro, then First’s 36 bus runs from the city’s bus station to Goonhilly three times a day Monday to Saturday, taking about 95 minutes. Entry

Goonhilly Earth Station is not currently open to the public, although it plans to reopen its visitor centre in 2015 or 2016 (check website below for updates).

Other resources

Goonhilly Earth Station website

Goonhilly Segway website

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