Cornwall calling - Goonhilly's ears link up the world, and outer space


Cornwall calling - Goonhilly's ears link up the world, and outer space

The array of satellite dishes at Goonhilly in southern Cornwall has been at the forefront of telecommunications history since it was built in the 1960s. It played a key role in the first transatlantic live TV transmission, conveyed telephone calls across the Atlantic, and is now an integral part of the space exploration programme.

Goonhilly Satellite Earth Station is a large radio communication site located on Goonhilly Downs on the Lizard peninsula in Cornwall. Now owned by Goonhilly Earth Station Ltd under a 999-year lease from BT Group plc whose predecessors were the original developers, it was at one time the largest satellite earth station in the world, with more than 30 communication antennas and dishes in use. The site also links into undersea cable lines in the Atlantic. Today 90% of transatlantic data traffic still comes through Cornwall.

The remote location was chosen to minimise radio-signal interference and the serpentine rock on which it is built can support the weight of even the largest dishes.

Its first dish, Antenna One (dubbed "Arthur"), was built in 1962 to link with the earliest earth orbiting communications satellite, the American Telstar. It was the first open parabolic design dish created and is 25.9 metres (85 feet) in diameter and weighs 1,118 tonnes.

After Pleumeur-Bodou Ground Station (Brittany) which received the first live transatlantic television broadcasts from the United States via the Telstar satellite at 00:47GMT on 11 July 1962, Arthur received its first video content in the middle of the same day - a speech by President Kennedy. Arthur is now a Grade II listed structure.

In 1969, Arthur beamed Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the Moon in the Apollo 11 mission to a global audience of around 600 million, signalling the dawn of the space age. Arthur went on to broadcast Muhammad Ali fights and the 1985 Live Aid concerts as well as phone calls, bank transactions and shipping distress calls.

Telstar became obsolete decades ago, but Arthur continues to be put to good use, with plans to upgrade the antenna for radio astronomy as part of e-Merlin, the UK's National Radio Telescope Interferometer* at Jodrell Bank Observatory. Thus, Arthur will reach beyond the solar system to study the formation of stars and will observe other galaxies and black holes.

By the 1970s, Goonhilly was the world’s largest earth station, transmitting and receiving communications from satellites. Every UK international call was spliced up here to be sent over satellite to its destination.

In 1991, the site became the lynchpin in the Internet, connecting the East and West coasts of the US to Europe. At this time there were 300 people on site, with a cricket ground, tennis courts, house band, manicured gardens and a football pitch.

Goonhilly was mothballed by BT in 2006, and was acquired by Goonhilly Earth Station Ltd in 2014 to work in the fields of supercomputing, Deep Space research and communication and technical training. In 2021 Goonhilly's GHY-6 antenna successfully picked up signals from the UAE Hope Mission as it entered Mars’ orbit, and is now set to become the world’s first commercial deep space antenna.

The Goonhilly Downs area is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). Its sparse heathland features many rare plants thanks to the mild oceanic climate.

* An Interferometer is an investigative device to study the behaviour of light and to measure astronomical distances.

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