Posts Tagged ‘Black Knight’

The Sky At Night Looks at Britain in Space

October 19, 2018

I just managed to catch the weekday repeat a day or so ago of this month’s Sky at Night, in which presenters Maggie Aderin-Pocock and British astronaut Tim Peake looked at the history of Britain in space, and forward to the country’s future in the deep black. The programme’s changed a bit over the past few years in the case of its presenters. It was famously presented by Sir Patrick Moore from its beginning in the 1950s until he passed away a few years ago. This made the programme the longest-running show presented by the same person. Aderin-Pocock joined it before Moore’s departure. She’s a black woman scientist, with a background in programming missile trajectories. She’s obviously very intelligent, enthusiastic and very definitely deserves her place on the show. But I wish she’d done a job that didn’t involve the military use of rocket technology, however much this is needed as part of national defence.

Aderin-Pocock was speaking to one of the management officials from Orbex, a new, British company, which has developed a rocket launcher and intends to open a spaceport in one of the more deserted areas of Scotland. The rocket will stand about 17 meters tall, using propane and High Test Peroxide as fuel. High Test Peroxide is a highly concentrated version of the hydrogen peroxide used by hairdressers to bleach peoples’ hair. The use of propane is particularly important, as it’s lighter than conventional rocket fuels, meaning that the rocket doesn’t have to carry as much fuel to lift off into space. Advances in satellite design have also allowed the rocket to be smaller than other spacecraft used elsewhere. British universities have succeeded in developing microsatellites – satellites that are much, much smaller than some of the satellites put into orbit, but which can perform the same functions. As these satellites are smaller and lighter, they only need a relatively smaller, lighter rocket to launch them.

The Scottish launch complex also wasn’t going to be as big as other, larger, major launch complexes, such as those of NASA, for example. I think it would still contain a launch tower and control buildings. As well as the official from Orbex, the show also talked to a woman representing the rural community in the part of Scotland, where they were planning to build it. She admitted that there would be problems with building it in this part of the Scots countryside. However, the community was only going to lease the land, not sell it to Orbex, and care would be taken to protect the farms of the local crofters and the environment and wildlife. Like much of rural Britain, this was an area of few jobs, and the population was aging as the young people moved away in search of work. She looked forward to Orbex and its spaceport bringing work to the area, and creating apprenticeships for the local young people.

The programme went on to explain that this would be the first time for decades that a British company was going to build a British rocket to launch a British satellite. From what looked the British space museum in Manchester, Time Peake stood under the display of Britain’s Black Knight rocket and the Prospero satellite. He explained how the rocket launched the satellite into space from Australia in 1975. However, the project was then cancelled, which meant that Britain is the only country so far which has developed, and then discarded rocket technology.

But Black Knight wasn’t the only space rocket Britain developed. Peake then moved on to talk about Skylark, a massively successful sounding rocket. Developed for high altitude research, the rocket reached a maximum of altitude of 400 km in the few minutes it was in flight. At its apogee – its maximum distance from Earth – the vehicle briefly experienced a few minutes of zero gravity, during which experiments could be performed exploring this environment. The Skylark rocket was used for decades before it was finally cancelled.

Aderin-Pocock asked the official from Orbex how long it would be before the spaceport would be up and running. The manager replied that this was always an awkward question to answer, as there was always something that meant operations and flights would start later than expected. He said, however, that they were aiming at around the end of 2020 and perhaps the beginning of 2021.

Orbex are not, however, the only space company planning to open a spaceport in Britain. Virgin Galactic have their own plans to launch rockets in to space from Cornwall. Their vehicle will not, however, be launched from the ground like a conventional rocket, but will first be carried to a sufficiently high altitude by an airplane, which would then launch it. I’m not a betting man, but my guess is that of the two, Orbex is the far more likely to get off the ground, as it were, and begin launching its rocket on schedule. As I’ve blogged about previously, Branson has been telling everyone since the late 1990s at least, that Virgin Galactic are going to be flying tourists into space in just a few months from now. This fortnight’s Private Eye published a brief list of the number of times Branson had said that, with dates. It might be that Branson will at last send the first of his aspiring astronauts up in the next few months, as he claimed last week. But from his previous form, it seems far more likely that Orbex will start launches before him, as will Branson’s competitors over the pond, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos.

When asked about the company’s capability of perfecting their technology, Orbex’s manager not stressed the skill and competence of the scientists, technicians and engineers working on the project. This included not just conventional space scientists, but also people, who had personally tried and failed to build their own spacecraft. He said that it was extremely important to fail to build rockets. He’s obviously referring to the many non-professional, hobby rocketeers out there trying to build their own spacecraft. He didn’t mention them, but one example would be the people at Starchaser, who started out as a small group of enthusiasts in Yorkshire but have gone on to create their own space company, now based across the pond in America. I think it’s brilliant that amateurs and semi-professionals have developed skills that the professionals in the industry find valuable. And the failures are important, as they show what can go wrong, and give the experience and necessary information on how to avoid it. I don’t think the rocket will be wholly built in this country. The manager said that some of it was being constructed in Copenhagen. This sounds like Copenhagen Suborbitals, a Danish team of rocket scientists, who are trying to put a person into space. They’re ex-NASA, I believe, but it’s a small, private venture. They have a webpage and have posted videos on YouTube, some of which I’ve reblogged. They’ve also said they’re keen for people to join them, or start their own rocket projects.

I’d been looking forward to that edition of the Sky at Night for the past week, but when the time came, it slipped my mind that it was on. I’m very glad I was able to catch it. If Orbex are successful, it will be the first time that a British satellite will launch a British satellite from here in Britain. And it sounds really optimistic. Not only will Britain be returning to space rocket development, but the Scots spaceport sounds like it will, hopefully, bring work to a depressed area. I’m also confident that the local environment there will also be preserved. The launch complex around NASA is necessarily so remote from other buildings, that it’s actually become a wildlife haven. So much so that it’s now a location for birdwatching.

When it was announced that they were planning to build a new spaceport in Scotland, I assumed it would be for Skylon, the British spaceplane. There had been articles in the paper about the spacecraft, which stated that it would be launched either from Scotland or Cornwall. It seems I was wrong, and that it’s Orbex’s rocket which will be launched there instead. But nevertheless, I wish Orbex every success in their venture, and hope that sometime soon Skylon will also join them in flight out on the High Frontier.


‘Sky At Night’ on Sunday on Britain in Space

October 9, 2018

Next Sunday’s edition of Sky at Night, for 14th October 2018, will be looking at the history of the British space programme and its possible future. The blurb for it in the Radio Times runs

Space Britannia

The future of Britain’s space programme, examining plans for the first UK spaceport in Scotland and the potential launch of revolutionary micro-satellites over the next decade. Guest presenter Tim Peake looks at the history of British space exploration.

The programme’s on BBC4 at 10.00 pm.

Britain did have a very successful space programme from the 1950s to about 1975. The UK developed a number of very successful sounding rockets, like Skua, which were used by meterologists for the exploration of the upper atmosphere. Development of the Blue Steel missile, intended as the launcher for Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent, resulted in the creation of the Black Knight rocket, which successfully launched a British satellite, Ariel, into orbit in 1975 from Woomera in Australia. And then the British launcher programme was cancelled, as civil service mandarins felt it would be more economical to have our satellites launched by the Americans.

We were also part of the ESRO programme in the 1960s until that finally fell to pieces in the 1970s. This was a European programme to produce a common launch rocket for European satellites We were to produce the first stage, and the French, Germans and Italians the others. Our part of the rocket worked perfectly, but there were problems with the other stages. This led to the programme’s cancellation as costs mounted. The French, however, continued developing rockets, leading eventually to the launch of Ariane, which has been immensely successful. We were left behind as the launch of our satellites depended on the Americans’ own plans and launch priorities. And the suspension of the space shuttle programme after the Challenger disaster, I believe, did result in Britain losing that as a launch vehicle for the duration.

Black Arrow, another British Rocket

There have been a number of plans to develop British spaceplanes, like MUSTARD in the 1960s and then HOTOL in the 1980s. HOTOL was cancelled because of difficulties getting the airbreathing engines to work. However, work on the plane continued after its official cancellation. The problems have been ironed out, and a new spaceplane developed, Skylon. It’s not a crewed vehicle, so it doesn’t look like any British astronauts will be going into space direct from Blighty just yet. Nevertheless, things are looking very optimistic for the British space programme, as there were reports in the papers a few months ago that the plane would be all set and ready to fly in the very near future, like 2020. I certainly hope so, and will look forward to seeing what this programme has to say about it all.

Stephen Hawking on Why British Science Needs the EU

June 1, 2016

One of the many piece Mike put up on his site yesterday reported on Stephen Hawking’s statement that British science would be put at risk if we left the EU. Hawking was speaking as a guest on the show Good Morning Britain, and stated that the EU was good for British science for two reasons. Firstly, it allowed scientists and students from different countries to travel, thus sharing their skills, knowledge and experience. Without this exchange of personnel and ideas, Britain would be come isolated and remote from the centres of scientific endeavour. He also stated that British science benefited from generous funding from the European Union.

Another EU personality clash: Stephen Hawking vs Michael Gove. Who do YOU think should win?

Hawking’s views here are, unsurprisingly, exactly right. In fact, British intellectual culture has benefited from the exchange of staff and ideas from across the continent. Many, perhaps the majority, of unis today have teaching staff and students from elsewhere in the EU and the wider world. In the archaeology department at Bristol University four years ago, when I was studying for my postgraduate degree, there were staff from Greece, Portugal and Germany. There were also speakers at the regular postgraduate seminars from countries such as Austria and Belgium, apart from those from the other parts of the Anglophone world. These archaeologists reported on excavations they had carried out not only in their home countries, but also in places like Turkey, Egypt, Romania and the former USSR. Well some of this is no doubt possible without the umbrella of the EU, it’s made much easier with it.

And Britain does benefit from the international contacts the EU brings at a corporate and financial level. ESA, the European Space Agency, operates a system of a juste retour. Under this system, the countries that contribute the most funding to a European space project get the most contracts for it. And we’ve missed out on the benefits of closer cooperation with the European Space Agency in the past. For example, we could have been much more involved with the Ariane satellite launcher. This was developed by France from the remains of the ESRO project to build a European launch vehicle. We developed our own launcher too, Black Knight, which successfully launched a British satellite in the 1970s, but was cancelled after its first mission. We could have had a place, or many more places for our satellites, aboard Ariane. Instead, some Whitehall mandarin decided that we should instead throw in our lot with the Americans’ space shuttle. Well, we suffered there, not just because of the horrific engineering problems with that space vessel, which resulted in the deaths of the crew of the Challenger and more recent fatalities. We also suffered because the launch of our satellites depended on whether there was space left over after the Americans had filled it with the experiments they wanted for their missions. Meanwhile, Ariane, quietly and successfully, carried other countries’ experiments and satellites into orbit, while we waited for the goodwill of the Americans.

And Ariane itself, the rocket launcher, is excellent value for money. It costs the same as the Space Shuttle to launch a satellite, but that’s only because the Space Shuttle was heavily subsidised by the US government. If you’re looking for something that justifies itself according to free market ideology, then it’s probably Ariane you’d go for.

Much of the cutting-edge, gosh-wow science that science educators love, because it captures young minds, like space, atomic physics and so on, is very expensive. I doubt whether the UK on its own could bear the cost of building a particle accelerator the size of CERN, or its rivals in America. So CERN was the result of collaboration between different European nations. And the importance of international contacts and intellectual mobility between countries is also underscored by the initial post-War success of American atomic physics. The Americans were able to build such huge nuclear reactors and accelerators, not just because they had the vast financial resources to afford them, but also because they benefited from the influx of all the scientists and engineers the Nazis had chased out of Central Europe.

Mike, following one of his esteemed commenters, asks who people should believe about science and Brexit, Stephen Hawking, or Michael Gove? Really, you don’t have to have read A Brief History of Time or understand the intricacies of N-dimensional String Theory to know the answer to that one. It’s definitely going to be Hawking.

Tim Peake and British Space Rockets

December 17, 2015

The big news in science this week as far as this country goes, was Tim Peake’s blast-off yesterday to join the crew of the International Space Station. He’s the first Brit to travel into space for nearly twenty years. Helen Sharman in the 1990s was the first Briton to go into space in a privately-funded mission in Russia. Unfortunately, the private funding didn’t appear, and she only flew thanks to the generosity of the Russian government. Towards the end of the decade, Tim Foale also flew aboard the Space Shuttle. He was not, however, technically British, as in order to participate in American shuttle programme, he’d had to take American nationality.

The launch was covered by the Beeb in their Stargazing Live programme, and there was a countdown to the launch, featuring various Beeb celebs and personalities. Down here in Bristol, even the local news programme, Points West, got in on the act. Their anchor David Garmston interviewed an Asian lady, an astrophysicist working as the education director for the @Bristol Science Centre. She had joined the competition to become the first British astronaut for over a decade, and had reached the final six before sadly being rejected. She graciously said that the better person had won, and wished Peake all the best.

In fact, long before Helen Sharman, Foale and Peake voyaged into the Final Frontier, from the 1950s to the 1970s Britain was manufacturing and experimenting with space vehicles as easily the third space power apart from America and the USSR. The rockets launched by Britain, many of them from the Woomera launch city in Australia, were the Skylark, Skua and Jaguar sounding rockets, the Blue Streak missile, Black Arrow and Black Knight. There was also a projected larger launcher, Black Prince.


Skylark Rocket

These rockets were developed at the suggestion of the Gassiot Committee of the Royal Society, which in the 1950s became interested in using rockets to study Earth’s upper atmosphere. The committee invited members of the Ministry of Supply to their 1953 conference on the subject, and the result was that they were contacted by the British government to see if there would be any interest in developing such a vehicle. And from this came the Skylark programme.

These rockets were 25 feet long and 17.4 inches in diameter. They were built by the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough and the Rocket Propulsion Establishment, Westcott, which made the Raven solid rocket motor which powered it. The first Skylark rocket was launched from Woomera in 1957. By 1965 over 100 such rockets had been launched. The rocket was modified, and the Raven motor replaced by the more efficient Cuckoo, so that it could lift a payload of 330 pounds 136 miles into space.

The rocket has been used to study wind, the temperature of the upper atmosphere, the ionosphere, radiation and micro-meteorites.


Skua Rocket

This is another sounding rocket used to study the atmosphere. It was 8 feet long, 80 pounds in weight, but could carry a payload of 11 pound 46 miles into the atmosphere. Like today’s hobby rockets, it was re-usable, coming back to Earth via parachute, so that it could be given another load of charge and used again. A second variant of the rocket, Skua 2, could take the same payload up to 62 miles. The rocket was built by Bristol Aerojet, and was launched from a 32 foot long tube mounted on a Bedford truck.


This was developed to research the problems of aerodynamics and heating in hypersonic flight. It was a three stage rocket developed by the Aerodynamics Department of the Royal Aircraft Establishment in Farnborough, and the Aerodynamics Division of the Weapons Research Establishment in Australia. The rocket motors for the vehicle were produced by the Rocket Propulsion Establishment at Westcott.

The first stage was powered by a Rook motor, which takes the rocket to 80,000 ft. The second stage Gosling motor is fired, which increases the rocket’s speed from 3,000 ft/s to 5,500 ft/s. After this is used up, the final stage Lobster motor accelerates the rocket to 10,000 ft/s. It was capable of taking 20 pounds to an altitude of 500-600 miles.

Black Knight

Black Knight Rockets

This was developed as the test vehicle for Blue Streak, an independent nuclear missile launcher. Blue Streak was abandoned in 1960, partly because they wouldn’t be anywhere in Britain suitable to launch it from in the event of a nuclear attack. Black Knight, however, continued to be developed as rocket for scientific research. It was used for a further five years to study problems in re-entry, the upper atmosphere and carry experiments later incorporated into UK and US joint scientific satellites.

The rocket came in single and two-stage versions. The single stage version was powered by a Gamma 201 liquid rocket motor burning a mixture of High Test Peroxide and Kerosene. It was 32 ft 10 in. in length, and three feet in diameter. The rocket could reach a maximum height of 147 missiles. The rocket motor was produced by Armstrong Siddeley, and based on an existing Gamma motor developed by the RPD at Westcott.

The two-stage version of the rocket were flown from August 1964 to 25th November 1965. It was 38 ft 8 in. in length. The first stage rocket motor was powered by a Gamma 301 engine, and then by a Gamma 304, developed by Bristol Siddeley. The second stage was powered by a version of the Skylark’s Cuckoo motor, and was three feet long and 1.4 feet in diameter. It was fire back into the atmosphere so that the effect of the re-entry speeds could be studied.

A larger version of Black Knight using Gamma 303/4 motors in a vehicle 54 in. in diameter was under development in Bristol in 1963. There was also a plan to build a three stage rocket, Black Prince. This was to use Blue Streak as its first stage, a 54 inch Black Knight as the second stage and then a small, solid rocket third stage. The rocket would be 97 ft 10 in. tall, and be able to send 1,750 pound satellite into polar orbit 300 miles above the Earth.

Between September 1958 and November 1965 22 Black Knight rockets were launched from Woomera. Saunders Roe on the Isle of Wight were responsible for the rocket’s overall design, construction and testing. Armstrong Siddeley of Ansty, near Coventry, were responsible for the rocket engine, and De Havilland of Hatfield were to supply the test team at Woomera. The rockets were subjected to systems checks at Highdown on the Isle of Wight, before being flown or shipped out to Woomera.

BK 10, the spare for the rocket BK 11, was returned to Britain, and donated to the Science Museum, while High Down is now the property the National Trust.

Blue Streak

Blue Streak Rocket

Although it was cancelled as an independent nuclear weapon, there was an attempt to salvage it by using it as the proposed first stage for the proposed European rocket launcher, Europa 1. It was built by Hawker-Siddeley Dynamics and Rolls Royce. It had a Rolls Royce RZ-2 engine, burning a mixture of kerosene and liquid oxygen to produce 300,000 pounds of thrust. Unfortunately, this also came to nothing as the European rocket launcher project was cancelled due to the failures of our European partners to produce effective, functioning second and third stages.

Black Arrow

Black Arrow Rocket

After the cancellation of the Black Knight programme, Britain continued developing its own independent satellite launcher. This was Black Arrow, a three stage rocket standing 42 feet 9 inches tall. The main contractor for the spacecraft was Westland Aircraft, which was famous in the West Country for manufacturing helicopters. The first stage was powered by a Rolls-Royce Gamma Type 8 engine, burning hydrogen peroxide and kerosene. The second used a Rolls-Royce Gamma Type 2 engine, while the third was powered by a solid propellant rocket, Waxwing, made by Bristol Aerojet. Sadly, the project was cancelled after it successfully launched the 220 pound Prospero satellite into a 300 mile polar orbit in November 1971.

And Now the Politics Bit

These projects were cancelled and the accumulated knowledge effectively thrown away, because the mandarins at the British Civil Service saw no value in them. They were considered too expensive, and it was believed that using American rocket launchers would be a cheaper and more cost-effective option. In fact Britain has lost out because, at least in the 1990s, it looked as if there was going to be an international market in space vehicles. Even the Indians were developing them. The launch of British satellites by the Americans meant that Britain depended on their goodwill and available space aboard their rockets.

The French, who I believe were responsible for the second stage of Europa I, the European rocket launcher, forged ahead to produce the cheap and successful Ariane, launched from their site in Kourou, French Guiana. The French rocket is actually cheaper, and more economical, than the Space Shuttle. The Shuttle, however, had the advantage in that it was heavily subsidised by the American government.

It’s therefore ironic that David Cameron should try to show the world how keenly he is supporting a British astronaut, when this is precisely what British governments have failed to do since the 1970s. Maggie Thatcher was all for Helen Sharman’s voyage into space, as that was supposed to be managed by private enterprise. Until private enterprise wasn’t able to do the job. Cameron’s government has carried on this daft and destructive policy of closing down Britain’s manufacturing base, and preferring to buy in from outside rather than develop our own industries. Way back in the 1960s Harold Wilson made a speech about Britain benefiting from the ‘white heat of technology’. Those in power never listened to him, and despite Cameron mugging on Twitter, they still aren’t. You can see that from the way they’ve sold off our industries, including the defence contractors that were able to create such magnificent machines as Black Arrow. And our country is much the poorer.

Further Reading

The Encyclopaedia of Space (Hamlyn: 1968)

John Becklake, ‘British Rocket Experiments in the Late 1950s/Early 1960s in John Becklake, ed., History of Rocketry and Astronautics (San Diego: American Astronautical Society 1995) 153-64.

John Becklake, ‘The British Black Knight Rocket’, op. cit. 165-81.

T.M. Wilding-White, Janes Pocket Book : Space Exploration.

In this clip below, Alice Roberts from the Beeb’s Coast TV series, interviews members of the Black Arrow team on the Isle of Wight. One of them tells her how he was told to tell the rest of the team the project was cancelled and they were sacked immediately after the launch. Hansard, the parliamentary newspaper, records that the mandarin, who made the decision did so because he could see absolutely no future in the development of satellite launchers.

Here’s a British newsreel report on the Blue Streak programme from 1964. It shows the rocket being tested at Spadeadam in Scotland, and its launch in Woomera. It talks about the European Rocket Launcher programme, and some of the dignitaries attending the launch, such as the French general in charge of the European project. It also shows what a thriving community Woomera was back then, and follows Mrs Lawrence, a housewife with a part-time job as a camera operator tracking the rocket on its launch, as she goes on her 300 mile commute each day from home to the launch site.

It recalls the era as one of optimism, of a time when Australia itself, its rugged landscape and sheer vastness, were a source of fascination and wonder to Brits, long before the arrival of soap and pop stars like Kylie Minogue.