Goonhilly is an area of the Lizard Peninsula in the British county of Cornwall. This region has been the destination of countless family holidays in my lifetime, and even today the Cornish landscape provides plenty of surprises for me. One landmark in particular has been the focus of my interest for as long as I can remember. Driving from the town of Helston, past RNAS Culdrose (an active Royal Naval Air Service site), and then on toward the most southerly point of mainland United Kingdom, a strange, yet familiar sight greets me. Every time I see the silhouette of those satellite dishes on the horizon of the Goonhilly Downs, I’m full of curiosity and excitement. But this year, the station is cutting back its operations to be moved to another site. The sad end of an era…
Goonhilly Earth Station is owned by the British telecommunications company BT and has been operating since 1962. The largest dish, called “Arthur” (or less romantically “Goonhilly 1”) was the world’s first example of an open parabolic dish. Its construction was intended to form the ground communications link with the world’s first telecommunication satellite, Telstar, launched on July 10th of that year by one of the earliest Delta rocket flights from Cape Canaveral in the US.
The Telstar satellite was sponsored by an international consortium of companies and agencies including AT&T, Bell Telephone Laboratories, NASA, the British General Post Office, and the French National PTT to investigate satellite technology. Bell Labs constructed the spherical satellite and it was owned by AT&T. Key to this historic mission was Arthur, the lone dish sitting proudly in the flat and remote Lizard countryside. It was this 25.9 metre diameter, 1,118 tonne heavyweight that received and transmitted signals to and from Telstar, allowing the BBC to receive the first live television signal from the US on July 11th, 1962.
Alas, Telstar was launched too soon after the test of the US Starfish Prime high altitude nuclear weapon. The resulting “super-energizing” of the Earth’s Van Allen belts boosted the radioactivity in the volume of space Telstar travelled though, damaging the delicate on board transistors. This was the beginning of the end for Telstar’s operations, but Arthur and Goonhilly went from strength to strength. Since these historic times, the Earth Station itself went on to host over 70 operational satellite communications dishes, servicing regions from the Indian Ocean to the North Atlantic, from mobile phones to shipping communications. It very quickly became the largest satellite Earth station on the planet. Arthur was joined by several other large antennae, all named after characters in the King Arthur legend. Here are the main antennae and their designated purpose:
- Arthur (Goonhilly 1), built 1962. 1,100 tonnes, 25.9 metres. Designed for Telstar, more recently used for communicating with INTELSAT satellites over the Indian Ocean.
- Uther (Goonhilly 2), built 1968. ~1,000 tonnes, 27.4 metres. First dish to be decommissioned (in 2005) due to age and weather damage.
- Guinevere (Goonhilly 3), built 1972. 29.6 metres. Used for communicating with INTELSAT satellites over the Indian Ocean, servicing Australia, China, Hong Kong, Iran, Japan, Korea, Singapore and India.
- Lancelot (Goonhilly 4), built 1978. Designed for contacting the ESA’s Orbital Test Satellite, more recently used for commercial trans-Atlantic communications.
- Geraint (Goonhilly 5). 14.2 metres. Worked in collaboration with surrounding mini-dishes to communicate with the INMARSAT satellite over the Atlantic.
- Merlin (Goonhilly 6), built 1985. 390 tonnes, 32 metres. Most powerful and sophisticated dish. Famed for relaying the 1985 Live Aid concert to two billion people in 100 countries, and for transmitting Prince Charles/Dianna Spencer’s royal wedding.
- Tristan (Goonhilly 7), built 1983. 13 metres. Formed part of the INMARSAT service. TV services, news between Europe, Middle East and New York.
There is a vast history surrounding the dishes at Goonhilly, too much for me to chronicle in this single post, but for further information, you can have a look around BT’s Future World. Possibly the strangest thing for me when walking around the visitor centre at the station was the stark contrast between the modern and the historic. Although impressive, the huge dish of Arthur is showing its age. Fortunately, this dish will remain on the site as it is a building of significant historic significance (Grade II listed). Right next door is Future World, primarily an educational centre, showcasing the most advanced technology for communications on Earth and in space.
The future of Goonhilly Earth Station may seem a little bleak, but on chatting to one of the members of staff, he was very upbeat about the site’s future. Although many of the dishes had been decommissioned, most of the large antennae remain. 17 are still operational and BT intends to continue some research operations. There are also rumours that other large dishes on site will become listed structures. I’m sure Future World will remain too. Regardless, the glory days of the once largest satellite Earth station are over and most of the site’s operations are being moved to Madley, in Herefordshire.
Information on the Goonhilly down-sizing can be found in this 2006 BBC News article.