Fifty years ago, a small rocket lifted off from the Australian Outback on a mission of contradictions. While the launch of Black Arrow R3 with the Prospero satellite aboard would be Britain’s first successful satellite launch, it also marked the end of the country’s ambitions to be a major player in the space industry. Over the following decades, the British space industry has re-grown and now stands ready to reach again for the stars.
Deploying Prospero was the last in a series of four missions for the Black Arrow program, which included two suborbital tests and a failed orbital launch attempt before the successful launch, which took place at 04:09 UTC (13:39 local time) on 28 October 1971. Successfully orbiting a satellite – making the UK the sixth country to demonstrate an orbital launch capability – marked the pinnacle of Britain’s rocketry program.
However, by the time of the launch, the end of the project had already been confirmed, with foreign launchers seen as a cheaper alternative.
As in the United States and the Soviet Union, Britain’s early development of large-scale rockets grew out of a need to improve the country’s nuclear deterrent in the context of the Cold War. In the 1950s this was provided by the Royal Air Force’s V-Force, using Valiant, Victor, and Vulcan bomber aircraft to deliver Blue Danube and later Yellow Sun free-fall bombs.
By the mid-1950s it had become clear that these bombers would be vulnerable to Soviet anti-aircraft defenses, so the development of two missiles began. These would be the air-launched Blue Steel, a stand-off weapon allowing V-Force bombers to attack their targets from 160 kilometers away, and the ground-launched Blue Streak ballistic missile.
Conceived as an intermediate-range missile capable of striking targets in the Soviet Union from the UK, design work on Blue Streak began with the issuance of an official requirement in 1955. Around the same time, the development of another rocket, Black Knight, also commenced. Black Knight was a research vehicle that would be used to test and develop a re-entry vehicle for the Blue Streak program.
During this era, British defense projects were named according to a system known as “rainbow codes”, consisting of a randomly selected color and noun as exemplified by Blue Streak and Blue Steel. During and after this time, projects that did not require an official codename were often given names that followed the same style. Black Arrow was an example of the latter, as the rainbow codes had been superseded by the time the program was initiated.
By 1960 it was clear that the Blue Streak design – which relied on liquid oxygen as an oxidizer – was already obsolete as a missile and it was canceled, the UK opting instead to purchase missiles from the United States.
The development of the Black Arrow rocket was authorized in 1964 under the Royal Aircraft Establishment, with the Westland Aircraft Company as the prime contractor. Black Arrow would leverage hardware and technologies developed for the earlier Black Knight – whose manufacturer, Saunders-Roe, had been merged into Westland – to deliver small satellites into orbit. These would pave the way for larger satellites, launched by larger rockets, to carry out more complex missions.
Many of these larger designs were based around Blue Streak; despite no longer being useful as a missile, it would still feature at the heart of several proposed satellite launcher concepts in the early to mid-1960s. These included Black Prince, which used a widened version of Black Knight as its second stage with a small third stage. Other concepts included a cryogenic propellant upper stage burning liquid hydrogen – either a homegrown design or a license-built version of the American Centaur – and mounting a complete Black Arrow vehicle on top of a Blue Streak.
Blue Streak would also be selected as the first stage of the Europa rocket built by the European Launcher Development Organisation (ELDO), a partnership between the UK, several European nations, and Australia which began in 1961. Europa would use a French-built Coralie rocket as its second stage and a West German Astris as its third stage, with Italy developing the payload fairing.
As a consequence of both the Europa program and the proposal for combining the Blue Streak and Black Arrow rockets, the diameter of Black Arrow’s first stage was set at two meters to match the Coralie, so the same adaptor could be used. This measurement was in contrast to the imperial units used in the United Kingdom at the time, which were used to specify all of Black Arrow’s other dimensions.
While ground testing could be conducted in the UK, including engine testing at the Needles Batteries on the Isle of Wight, an evaluation of potential launch sites concluded that Britain’s geography made it unsuitable for orbital launch attempts. Although a polar orbit could be achieved from the Scottish Highlands and islands, or by launching from the East coast over the North Sea, the former was ruled out as being too remote, while the latter was rejected due to the presence of oil rigs in the downrange hazard area.
Instead, the Woomera Rocket Range in South Australia was selected for initial test flights of both vehicles. Black Arrow would use Woomera’s Launch Area 5 (LA-5), which had previously been used by Black Knight. Fourteen kilometers to the south, Europa testing occurred at Launch Area 6 (LA-6).
In the same year that development of Black Arrow began, the first Blue Streak reached the launch pad for a test flight in support of the Europa program. While the flight completed its test objectives, the rocket experienced control issues in the late stages of powered flight and subsequently disintegrated.
Test flights would continue throughout the 1960s, gradually adding inert and then live versions of the second and third stages. At the same time, Britain’s own rocket, Black Arrow, continued its own parallel development.
The resulting Black Arrow rocket was a three-stage vehicle, measuring about thirteen meters in length and two meters in diameter. Its first two stages were liquid-fuelled, burning kerosene (or paraffin in British English) propellant oxidized by high-test peroxide (HTP). HTP is a highly-concentrated solution of hydrogen peroxide and water that is extremely flammable and ignites on contact with the propellant – eliminating the need for dedicated ignition systems. For Black Arrow, an 85% solution was used, along with an oxidizer-to-fuel ratio of eight to one.
Both stages were powered by variants of Bristol Siddeley’s Gamma engine, originally developed for the Black Knight as a derivative of the Stentor engine used on Blue Steel. The Gamma 8 engine that powered the first stage had eight separate combustion chambers arranged in four pairs in a cross at the base of the rocket. Each pair of engines could swivel along a single axis, allowing for pitch and yaw control by moving opposite pairs together, or roll control by moving them in opposing directions.
The first and second stages were separated by an interstage, which incorporated four small Siskin ullage motors to help separate the stages and settle propellant in the second stage tanks prior to ignition. The Gamma 2 engine powering the second stage had twin combustion chambers with two-axis gimballing and extended nozzles to optimize it for high-altitude operation. Black Arrow’s third stage consisted of a Waxwing solid rocket motor which was spin-stabilized.
Black Arrow’s first test flight came at the end of June 1969, lifting off from Launch Area 5B at 22:58 UTC on 28 June. The Black Arrow R0 rocket was to perform a suborbital mission to demonstrate the rocket’s first two stages.
Before the rocket had even cleared the launch pad it was clear that something was wrong, as it rolled erratically back and forth. After climbing for about a minute the rocket lost thrust, tumbled, and began to disintegrate, with the range safety officer sending a destruct command to speed up the process. This anomaly was traced to a failure of the first stage thrust vectoring, with one pair of engines swiveling uncommanded.
A repeat of this test was flown in March 1970 using the R1 vehicle, which performed flawlessly. This paved the way for the first orbital launch attempt on 2 September 1970. Black Arrow R2 would carry the Orba satellite into low Earth orbit, marking the UK’s first attempt to place a satellite into orbit.
During ascent, the rocket suffered a second stage propellant leak which led to the stage burning out early, and left the rocket without enough velocity to reach orbit. A fourth flight would try again the following year with the Prospero research satellite.
With preparations well underway for the fourth flight – the second stage having arrived in Australia a few days prior, with the rest of the rocket already at the launch site or in transit – came the news that the program was to be canceled. This was announced in the House of Commons by Frederick Corfield, the minister for Trade and Industry, at the end of July.
With most of the costs for the upcoming launch already sunk, it would be allowed to proceed. But no matter its outcome, it would be the last attempt. For the teams involved, there would now be only one shot at getting to orbit.
The 66-kilogram Prospero satellite was designed as a testbed, carrying experiments to test electronic assemblies, different surface finishes, and solar cells in space. It also carried a micrometeoroid research experiment for the University of Birmingham.
The satellite was named Prospero after the character in Shakespeare’s final play, The Tempest. At the end of the play, the wizard Prospero lays down his magic, while in launching the Prospero satellite, Britain gave up its ambitions of launching its own satellites in the future.
When Black Arrow R3 lifted off at 04:09 UTC on 28 October 1971, it carried with it the last hope of the engineers who had worked on the program of delivering a satellite to orbit. The first and second stages burned perfectly and the Waxwing motor fired to inject Prospero into orbit. Eleven minutes and 50 seconds after liftoff, Prospero separated from the upper stage. With its successful deployment, Britain had become the sixth nation to launch a satellite into orbit.
The first stage of the R3 rocket fell back to Earth on a cattle ranch a few hundred kilometers to the north of the launch site. Although not designed to be recovered, the stage landed nearly intact, although warped and with its engines and aft skirt crushed. It remained on display in a nearby village until 2019, when Skyrora – a British company currently developing its own rockets – arranged for its return to the United Kingdom. The stage is currently on display at the Farnborough Air Sciences Trust Museum in southern England.
At the time of the project’s cancellation, one more Black Arrow rocket had been completed. The R4 vehicle had been due to launch the Miranda satellite, which would eventually fly on an American Scout vehicle instead. Black Arrow R4 now hangs in the Exploring Space gallery at the Science Museum in London, alongside a flight spare of the Prospero satellite.
Prospero itself remains in orbit and is not expected to reenter naturally until the 2070s. Earlier this year, Skyrora challenged the UK space industry to investigate ways to either deorbit the satellite to show the country’s commitment to reducing orbital debris or recover it for display in a museum. Skyrora is itself developing an upper stage that can serve as an orbital tug and could be used for debris removal missions in the future.
While Black Arrow eventually delivered a satellite to orbit, the same could not be said for Europa, which made its final flight and its fourth attempt to reach orbit eight days after Prospero’s launch. Britain had already officially left ELDO, although British industry was still involved in the project through the manufacture and support of the first stage. Blue Streak had performed flawlessly on all launches since its maiden flight, but issues with the upper stages persisted, and on the only flight where all three stages operated correctly, the rocket’s payload fairing failed to separate.
Europa’s final flight used the upgraded Europa II configuration, with an additional fourth stage to allow a launch to geostationary transfer orbit, flying from Kourou in French Guiana instead of Woomera. The flight lasted about 150 seconds before the guidance system incorporated into the third stage failed and the vehicle lost control.
Europa was finally abandoned in 1973, although ELDO’s remaining members would go on to develop the successful Ariane family of launchers. The Europa launch pad at Kourou would later be used by the Ariane 1 rocket, and in a rebuilt form remains in service to this day with Arianespace’s Vega rocket.
Prospero was not the United Kingdom’s first satellite. That honor fell to Ariel 1, a US-built spacecraft that was launched on an American Thor-Delta rocket in April 1962, making Britain the third country to operate a satellite in Earth orbit. Neither would it be the last, with many other British spacecraft riding to orbit initially on American rockets, and later European, Russian, and Indian vehicles as the commercial launch industry has grown over the last few decades.
Britain was a founding member of the European Space Research Organisation (ESRO), which became the European Space Agency (ESA) in 1975, and remains a significant financial contributor to ESA. The UK Space Agency (UKSA) was formed in 2010 with the goal of centralizing the UK’s space activities and driving innovation. UKSA replaced the earlier British National Space Centre.
Even without its own launch capability, Britain has been a major player in satellite development. Anglo-French Matra Marconi Space developed the successful Eurostar series of communications satellites in the 1980s and its successor, Airbus Defence and Space, continues to operate facilities in the UK today.
Another UK firm at the forefront of small satellite development is Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL), set up by the University of Surrey in the 1980s. Building on a series of UoSAT technology demonstrator missions, SSTL has built a successful portfolio of commercial and scientific spacecraft constructed for operators around the world.
A mission that particularly caught the public consciousness was the British-designed Beagle 2 probe, which launched to Mars in 2003 as part of ESA’s Mars Express. Beagle was intended to land on the red planet in search of signs of life; however, after its planned landing on Christmas Day, no signals were ever received. Eleven years later, the spacecraft was discovered in images taken by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, confirming that it had successfully landed but failed to deploy its solar panels and communications antennae.
Through the European Space Agency, Britain is also playing a role in humanity’s return to the Moon. In 2012, the UK announced that it would be providing additional funding to ESA which would allow for the development of a European service module for NASA’s Orion spacecraft. In December 2015, the UK’s first professional astronaut, Tim Peake, launched aboard Soyuz TMA-19M for a six-month stay aboard the International Space Station.
The advent of small commercial launch vehicles around the world in the last few years has drawn interest from companies in Britain, with two startups – Orbex and Skyrora – now in a race to succeed Black Arrow and make Britain’s second satellite launch. Orbex is developing its Prime rocket, while Skyrora is building the Skyrora-XL vehicle. With both companies currently targeting late 2022 for their first launch and developing launch facilities in the United Kingdom, the race is on.
Two US companies, ABL Space Systems and Virgin Orbit, have also expressed an interest in launching from the United Kingdom. Virgin Orbit, part of the Virgin Group founded by British entrepreneur Richard Branson, is currently targeting its first launch from Spaceport Cornwall at Newquay Airport in southwest England for June 2022 to coincide with Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee.
(Lead photo: Black Arrow R3 lifts off with the Prospero satellite – via ESA)