50 years have gone by since the UK's one – and only – homegrown foray into orbit

Hopefully not another half century before the next... although launchpads are pricey

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the UK joining an elite club of one: nations that gained the ability to launch satellites into orbit and then discarded the skill. The one – and only – successful orbital launch of the Black Arrow took place in 1971.

The place? The Woomera Prohibited Area (WPA) in Australia (about 450km from Adelaide.) It seems the UK was scattering rocket parts over Australia long before the US's first space station smacked into the country years later. The first of the UK's forays took place in 1969 and the fourth, and final, launch occurred on 28 October in '71, sending the Prospero satellite into Earth orbit.

Black Arrow

Click to enlarge

A fifth Black Arrow can be seen at London's Science Museum, strung up from the ceiling with a flight spare of the Prospero satellite dangling in front of the open payload fairing.

The programme kicked off in 1964, utilising technology from the earlier Black Knight rocket and Blue Steel missile programmes. The liquid-fuelled first and second stage engines were produced and tested in Warwickshire and assembly and integration occurred on the Isle of Wight. The solid-fuelled third stage was produced in Somerset.

The resulting three-stage rocket stood 13 metres tall and was theoretically capable of sending 135kg to a 220km orbit, although only the 66kg Prospero satellite ever actually made it.

In total, five Black Arrow rockets were produced and four were launched from the WPA in Australia, familiar to Brits from the successful Black Knight rocket project. The first two launches were suborbital tests for the first and second stages. The first, launched on 28 June 1969, failed. However the second, launched less than a year later on 4 March 1970, was a success. An attempt to reach orbit on 2 September 1970 failed, and then a few short months after the programme's cancellation was announced, a last launch on 28 October 1971 sent a payload into orbit.

While the facilities at Woomera were swiftly torn down, remnants of the programme remained. The remains of the first stages of the last flight Black Arrows, including the hulk of the first stage from the final launch, were recovered from Australia by Edinburgh-based Skyrora, with artifacts displayed first at Penicuik, Midlothian before being loaned to the Farnborough Air Sciences Trust (FAST) Museum until 2024.

UK rocketeers, including Skyrora and Orbex, have big ideas for vertical UK launches. The former has announced plans to de-orbit the Prospero satellite, which continues to orbit the Earth (although was last heard from in 2004), using its Space Tug orbital transfer vehicle.

However Skyrora, like rival Orbex, has yet to launch anything into orbit. Both hope to send up their considerably more environmentally friendly vehicles, the Skyrora XL and Orbex Prime, from a UK site in the coming years.

Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck talked to The Register about the challenges of building launchpads – even for small satellite launchers like his Electron and those of the UK's wannabe orbital rocketeers. "The easiest thing you can do is pour concrete," he said.

The challenge, Beck added, "is getting the environmentals in place, making sure you have a launch pad that offers enough trajectories that are viable, because at the end of the day a launchpad is just a money-sucking piece of infrastructure.

"And be prepared to pour cash into that asset because... it kind of sucks a lot."

Wise words indeed. ®

Similar topics

Other stories you might like

  • Florida's content-moderation law kept on ice, likely unconstitutional, court says
    So cool you're into free speech because that includes taking down misinformation

    While the US Supreme Court considers an emergency petition to reinstate a preliminary injunction against Texas' social media law HB 20, the US Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday partially upheld a similar injunction against Florida's social media law, SB 7072.

    Both Florida and Texas last year passed laws that impose content moderation restrictions, editorial disclosure obligations, and user-data access requirements on large online social networks. The Republican governors of both states justified the laws by claiming that social media sites have been trying to censor conservative voices, an allegation that has not been supported by evidence.

    Multiple studies addressing this issue say right-wing folk aren't being censored. They have found that social media sites try to take down or block misinformation, which researchers say is more common from right-leaning sources.

    Continue reading
  • US-APAC trade deal leaves out Taiwan, military defense not ruled out
    All fun and games until the chip factories are in the crosshairs

    US President Joe Biden has heralded an Indo-Pacific trade deal signed by several nations that do not include Taiwan. At the same time, Biden warned China that America would help defend Taiwan from attack; it is home to a critical slice of the global chip industry, after all. 

    The agreement, known as the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), is still in its infancy, with today's announcement enabling the United States and the other 12 participating countries to begin negotiating "rules of the road that ensure [US businesses] can compete in the Indo-Pacific," the White House said. 

    Along with America, other IPEF signatories are Australia, Brunei, India, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Combined, the White House said, the 13 countries participating in the IPEF make up 40 percent of the global economy. 

    Continue reading
  • 381,000-plus Kubernetes API servers 'exposed to internet'
    Firewall isn't a made-up word from the Hackers movie, people

    A large number of servers running the Kubernetes API have been left exposed to the internet, which is not great: they're potentially vulnerable to abuse.

    Nonprofit security organization The Shadowserver Foundation recently scanned 454,729 systems hosting the popular open-source platform for managing and orchestrating containers, finding that more than 381,645 – or about 84 percent – are accessible via the internet to varying degrees thus providing a cracked door into a corporate network.

    "While this does not mean that these instances are fully open or vulnerable to an attack, it is likely that this level of access was not intended and these instances are an unnecessarily exposed attack surface," Shadowserver's team stressed in a write-up. "They also allow for information leakage on version and build."

    Continue reading
  • A peek into Gigabyte's GPU Arm for AI, HPC shops
    High-performance platform choices are going beyond the ubiquitous x86 standard

    Arm-based servers continue to gain momentum with Gigabyte Technology introducing a system based on Ampere's Altra processors paired with Nvidia A100 GPUs, aimed at demanding workloads such as AI training and high-performance compute (HPC) applications.

    The G492-PD0 runs either an Ampere Altra or Altra Max processor, the latter delivering 128 64-bit cores that are compatible with the Armv8.2 architecture.

    It supports 16 DDR4 DIMM slots, which would be enough space for up to 4TB of memory if all slots were filled with 256GB memory modules. The chassis also has space for no fewer than eight Nvidia A100 GPUs, which would make for a costly but very powerful system for those workloads that benefit from GPU acceleration.

    Continue reading
  • GitLab version 15 goes big on visibility and observability
    GitOps fans can take a spin on the free tier for pull-based deployment

    One-stop DevOps shop GitLab has announced version 15 of its platform, hot on the heels of pull-based GitOps turning up on the platform's free tier.

    Version 15.0 marks the arrival of GitLab's next major iteration and attention this time around has turned to visibility and observability – hardly surprising considering the acquisition of OpsTrace as 2021 drew to a close, as well as workflow automation, security and compliance.

    GitLab puts out monthly releases –  hitting 15.1 on June 22 –  and we spoke to the company's senior director of Product, Kenny Johnston, at the recent Kubecon EU event, about what will be added to version 15 as time goes by. During a chat with the company's senior director of Product, Kenny Johnston, at the recent Kubecon EU event, The Register was told that this was more where dollars were being invested into the product.

    Continue reading
  • To multicloud, or not: Former PayPal head of engineering weighs in
    Not everyone needs it, but those who do need to consider 3 things, says Asim Razzaq

    The push is on to get every enterprise thinking they're missing out on the next big thing if they don't adopt a multicloud strategy.

    That shove in the multicloud direction appears to be working. More than 75 percent of businesses are now using multiple cloud providers, according to Gartner. That includes some big companies, like Boeing, which recently chose to spread its bets across AWS, Google Cloud and Azure as it continues to eliminate old legacy systems. 

    There are plenty of reasons to choose to go with multiple cloud providers, but Asim Razzaq, CEO and founder at cloud cost management company Yotascale, told The Register that choosing whether or not to invest in a multicloud architecture all comes down to three things: How many different compute needs a business has, budget, and the need for redundancy. 

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022