Reviving the UK's Space Programme

25 Sep, 2011 | Science And TechnologyTdp

OK, so reviving it is probably over the top, but there are plans to contact the UK's first -- and so far only -- satellite, which is still in orbit.  The UK's only space programme is another example of delivering will working on a shoe-string.

The programme, Black Arrow, which launched the satellite, Prospero (AKA X-3), came out of a previous project to build an Intermediate-Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM), called Blue Streak (the names of these projects come from the Ministry of Supply's naming system called Rainbow Codes, that consisted of a colour and a noun).  Blue Streak was designed as a replacement for nuclear weapons dropped from aircraft as aerial defences were becoming too strong for traditional bombers.  Due to spiraling costs, the project was cancelled and the UK bought Polaris missiles from the US instead.

Incidentally, the Blue Streak missile took so long to fuel it was open to a pre-emptive strike attack, so the UK developed underground missile silos to protect them from such an attack.  Another innovation we subsequently gave to the Americans.

Blue Streak was also considered as a first stage for a rocket capable of reaching orbit, along with Black Knight (the second stage), but the project was cancelled before they ever successfully flew together.  To avoid costly cancellation payments to the Australian government (they part-funded it) and various contractors, several more Blue Streak rockets had to be built, so they became the basis for the Black Arrow project and were used in the Europa launch vehicle (the precursor to the Ariane, more below).

The Black Arrow project was established in 1964 with the aim of building a rocket capable of putting a 114kg payload into low Earth orbit, mainly as a test for a larger craft.  It had several successful test flights from the Woomera range in Australia.  It was cancelled in 1971, but as the final rocket was already there they decided to go ahead.  And that's how the 66kg Propero satellite was launched (a previous launch in 1970 failed to achieve orbit).

Prospero was designed to test solar panels and detect micrometeorites, it also carried a tape recorder, which failed after 730 days.  Prospero could still be heard transmitting on 137.560 Mhz as late as 2006 (though we stopped contacting it officially in 1996) and it's not expected to fall out of orbit for another 100 years.  Now we need to find out how we can re-contact it (the information was thought lost) to see if she's still running.

I'm not sure what the records are on longest-running satellites, but it must be in with the shot at the title (apparently it's Vanguard 1, launched in 1958, but it no longer transmits, so it may well be the oldest working satellite).  Incidentally, it wasn't the UK's first satellite, that falls to Ariel 1, launched in 1962, which was also the first satellite that wasn't built by the US or Soviet Union, but was launched on a US rocket.

We may no longer be able to launch them, but a small conciliation may be that we're one of the best builders of satellites in the world (when the European Space Agency needed some satellites to secure the bandwidth for the future Galileo GPS system they turned to Surrey Satellite Technology (SST), based in Guildford, to build them).

Another use that was found for the Blue Streak first stage was in the fledgling Europa project, a venture between the UK, France and Germany to build a satellite launcher.  Each country would provide a stage and the UK part of the project, based on Blue Streak, worked flawlessly, but the stages provided by France and Germany failed on each launch, so Britain walked away.  Undeterred (and with the big incentive of a comms satellite the US refused to launch), France and Germany continued and developed what would become the Ariane rocket, which celebrated its 30th birthday not long ago.

The launch of Prospero put the UK as the sixth nation to put a satellite into orbit using its own rocket.  The UK does have the dubious honour of being the only nation to have developed and then abandoned a satellite launch capability.  Talk about dumb.