In the news this week, the battered first stage of a Black Arrow rocket has arrived in Scotland, after spending over forty-seven years resting in the Australian outback, where it crashed down following its successful launch. But what’s so special about this rocket to justify shipping it halfway across the world? Well, it was the only British rocket to launch a satellite.
The Black Arrow was a follow-up to another British missile, the Black Knight, intended to see if a rocket capable of launching satellites could be developed on the cheap from the existing technology. It was a three-stage rocket, standing thirteen metres tall, with a single eight-chambered engine in its first stage. Each rocket was assembled on the Isle of Wight, before being shipped to the Woomera Test Range in South Australia. The British had been testing rockets at Woomera since the 1940s, Australia having much more empty space for rocket debris to fall than the area surrounding Britain.
The first two launches were suborbital tests – the first, in June 1969, failed; but the second, in March 1970, reached an altitude of 340 miles. On 2nd September 1970, the third Black Arrow was used to try and launch the Orba satellite; unfortunately, the second stage shut down too early, and the rocket failed to enter orbit. Not long after that, the British government questioned whether the Black Arrow programme was economically worthwhile: its practical capabilities were limited due to the relatively small payload it could carry, and ultimately it would be cheaper to pay for British-made satellites to be launched on American rockets.
In July 1971, the Black Arrow programme was officially cancelled – but since the fourth rocket had already been built and shipped, it was decided that it might as well be launched. On 28th October 1971, the United Kingdom became the sixth country to launch its own satellite, as the fourth and final launch of the Black Arrow successfully placed the 66kg Prospero satellite in orbit, where it would measure micrometeoroid impacts and test new satellite systems. Prospero is still orbiting Earth today, though it is no longer being monitored; it is only expected to fall back to Earth about a century after its launch.
Today, of all the countries ever to launch a satellite, the United Kingdom remains the only one that can no longer do so, which is rather depressing. I like to imagine an alternate universe where the UK continued to develop its space-faring capabilities and is now regularly delighting space nerds with impressive launches. In July 2018, plans were announced for a spaceport to be built in the north of Scotland, where satellites can be launched into polar and sun-synchronous orbits; here’s hoping that this comes to fruition!