Goonhilly Earth Station, The Lizard, Cornwall
this article is now archived as Goonhilly Earth Station is no longer open to visitors 🙁
You’re on Holiday in Cornwall and its raining. What can you do?
If you’re near the Lizard Peninsula then you could do worse than visit the Goonhilly Earth Station, the largest satellite station on Earth.
Goonhilly was opened in 1962 with one satellite dish, called Arthur, who was built to track the Telstar satellites. The first programs received by Arthur where relayed from the USA to the UK via the Telstar satellites in orbit. Goonhilly was also one of the major contributors in bringing the pictures of the moon landing to over 600 million people worldwide.
The site is owned by BT and they will make sure you know this before you leave!
Arthur is the largest satellite on the Goonhilly site, weighing in at a massive 1118 tonnes and a dish span of some 85 feet he is still active today in bringing pictures from around the world. Originally satellites circled the earth and the satellite dishes which tracked them would move from horizon to horizon as they tracked the satellites. So although Arthur is a big old boy he´s certainly no slouch being able to move from horizon to horizon in just three minutes. This is the dish moving over the vertical not rotating 180 degrees! The guide informed us that if the power was to fail Arthur can be moved manually but it would take 1000 turns of the crank handle to move the dish just 1 inch!
The satellites are all named after Cornish Gods, such as Arthur, Guinevere, Uther, Geraint, Lancelot, Tristan, Isolde, and Merlin
Today however, satellites stay in a geostationary orbit which means the dishes no longer move to track the satellites as the satellites themselves are in a stationary orbit around the earth.
The down side to the dishes tracking the satellite is that once the satellite has moved over the horizon no signal can be received from it until it appears again. Very frustrating if you´re watching the world cup which was the first set of programs to be broadcast via Goonhilly.
Anyway enough about why the station is here. Its there to receive and send communications from around the world. So the entire site and visitors centre is purely about communications.
The site itself is located on the lizard peninsula near to Helston in Cornwall and getting there is quite easy. Head out of Helston towards the Lizard and once past the airbase turn left. Follow the signs and the site is several miles down this road.
Once there you have to pay, bummer! But there are loads of discount tickets floating about, so it cost £5 for me and the wife. There is a link at the bottom of the page to the discount voucher page at the Goonhilly web site, which you can print and take along for a discount.
Once inside the visitors centre, there is plenty to do from surf the internet, to olde phones, an informative film on Goonhilly, plus lots of stuff to keep the kids amused.
There is also a Café which I though was quite reasonably priced, we paid less than a tenner for 2 lunches, 2 drinks and two sweets. Tasted okay as well!
I can´t remember the frequency of the tours but they run pretty regular throughout the day and these take you on a tour of the site with an audio tape explaining the different aspects of the site. You are also taken to the old control room on Goonhilly and here a tour guide will inform you about the site, the dishes and the wildlife. Did I mention that the land around Goonhilly is part of the Lizard National Nature Reserve and has been since 1976? Oh, well I just have.
The tour was okay but the bus driver drove a bit to fast to see anything in any details.
I liked Goonhilly, Some of the exhibits where very good, I especially liked playing with the satellite reception exhibit which allows you to receive TV pictures from different satellites with broadcasts from different countries. The submarine cable exhibit was also very interesting especially as it explains about cables from the 1800´s.
The highlight of the centre for me was when we went back outside and the rain had stopped, and we could stand right underneath Arthur. Its truly an amazing piece of hardware. I know its not as big as the dish at Joddrell Bank in Cheshire but its so big with all the mechanisms for moving the dish.
I would go to Goonhilly again as the subject of communications is something which interests me and hopefully BT will update the exhibit on a regular basis. However there really isn´t enough to do at present to keep you amused for a full day and the internet access was so, so slow!
If your on the Lizard and are tired of sitting on the beach then a few hours at Goonhilly is just the job to drag you back into the 21st Century and beyond.