Black Arrow – The first British rocket

21st Dec 2020
Black Arrow – The first British rocket

Black Arrow is a legendary British light-class launch vehicle. From 1969 to 1971, it was launched four times from the Woomera spaceport in Australia. The fourth launch was the second successful and most remarkable launch for the UK. For the first time in history, a British rocket launched its Prospero satellite into low-earth orbit.

Later the project was frozen, and Black Arrow became a symbol of the UK’s space heritage.

The history of the Black arrow 

The first British rocket is a three-stage single-use rocket, 13 metres high, 2 metres wide, weighing 18 tons, powered by kerosene-hydrogen peroxide fuel combination and carrying a payload of up to 135 kg on a low-earth orbit load.

The name “Black Arrow” was created following the Ministry of Supply’s “Rainbow Codes” program, which uses names consisting of color and a noun.

The idea came to the Royal Aircraft Establishment in the early 1960s with the aim of testing systems for larger spacecraft.

In the autumn of 1964, the first British rocket program was approved by Conservative Minister of Aviation Julian Amery. However, elections were held in October and the new government, wishing to cut costs, suspended the project. The program was later resumed, but with a significant reduction in testing costs.

A total of 5 Black Arrow rockets were created.

  • 1. June 28, 1969. Suborbital test of the first and second stages without payload. Failed to control thrust vector.
  • 2. March 4, 1970. First and second stage suborbital test with a dummy payload.
  • 3. September 2, 1970. Test orbital launch. The second stage could not withstand the pressure, and the rocket was unable to enter orbit. The Orba satellite payload was lost.
  • 4. October 28, 1971. The rocket successfully reached orbit and launched the Prospero satellite, which is still in orbit.
  • 5. Due to the cancellation of the program, this rocket was never launched into space. It is exhibited at the Science Museum in London.

Most of the first British rocket technologies were taken from the earlier Black Knight and Blue Steel programs. Thus, the government tried to reduce costs and simplify the development process.

Black Arrow technology for New Space

The project was halted in July 1971 when the British government decided to take advantage of a US offer to supply American Scout missiles.

The Defence Department estimated that it was cheaper than supporting its own space program. However, as soon as the UK cancelled the Black Arrow project, the US immediately abandoned its offer. They did not renew the project.

For a long time, the last Black Arrow was located outside the UK. In 2019, Scottish aerospace company Skyrora brought it back to its homeland as a symbol of the country’s proven space history.

Today, in addition to Skyrora, several other startups in the UK are building light launch vehicles. Several of the Black Arrow rocket technologies formed the basis of their development.

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