History of Ariel-1, the First British Satellite Launch & UK’s Future Space Potential31st Oct 2021
The launch of the first artificial Earth satellite in 1957 marked the beginning of a great space race between the two world leaders, the USSR and the USA; however, it took a couple more years before the first British satellite was launched. Behind this confrontation, another participant in those great events remained almost unnoticed – Great Britain, which became the third country whose satellite was launched into orbit. The first British satellite launched successfully was Ariel 1, named by Prime Minister Harold Macmillan after a spirit from William Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
Partially British: First British Satellite Launch Attempts
At that time, the UK did not have its own space technologies, so the Ariel-1 satellite was developed and built in the USA by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center commissioned by CERS according to an agreement reached between the USA and UK in 1960.
The 136-pound 1st British satellite was 23 inches in diameter, had solar panels for generating power, nickel-cadmium batteries, and a 100-minute recorder for collecting ionospheric data.
Initially, the first British satellite in space should have launched on the American Scout rocket, but it lagged behind in development, so the UK decided to use the more expensive Thor-Delta rocket.
The Ariel-1 satellite was launched on 26th April 1962. Thor-Delta took off from Cape Canaveral and successfully placed the 1st British satellite into Low Earth orbit. Notably, the first British satellite in space spent nine years in orbit instead of a planned one.
In July 1962, a radiation belt from the American nuclear test Starfish Prime damaged the solar panels on the 1st British satellite. After that, the satellite in space remained operational, but radiation disabled the timer that was supposed to turn Ariel off a year after the launch, which is why the first British satellite in space de-orbited in 1976.
Ariel-1 satellite helped carry out six experiments to study the effect of solar radiation on the Earth’s ionosphere, which were then used in the British Skylark sounding rocket program.
A total of six satellites were launched under the Ariel program. Since Ariel 3, the spacecraft was built entirely by the UK but was still launched on American Delta (1) and Scout (2-6) rockets. The last Ariel was launched into orbit on 2nd June 1979.
Despite the Ariel programme’s importance for Britain’s status as a space power, its main drawback was the dependence on the United States. The UK still did not have its own space launch systems – an issue that had to be addressed soon. So, in 1964, on the basis of Black Knight ballistic missiles, began the development of the first British Black Arrow rocket.
Four Black Arrows were launched between 1969 and 1971. The first (suborbital) and third (orbital) launches failed. The fourth Black Arrow rocket launch became a landmark in the history of the UK.
On 28th October 1971, Black Arrow successfully launched from the Woomera complex in Australia and launched the British communications test satellite Prospero X-3 into low-earth orbit. Prospero became the first British satellite successfully launched by a British rocket.
This event made the UK the sixth country in the world to launch its own satellite on its own launch vehicle.
Unfortunately, this was the only example of the first British satellite launched by a British rocket – at least, so far. In 1972, the Black Arrow program was phased out as unprofitable, and since then, British satellites were launched on American and Russian rockets.
It took 45 years before the UK even started to consider participation in the space race. In 2017, the British government officially supported rocket developments of young Scottish companies Orbex Space and Skyrora, as well as a plan to build seven launch sites in the British Isles (5 in Scotland, one in the South West of England, and another in Wales).
The first launches from British spaceports are expected as soon as next year. Once the first British satellite launches from UK soil, the country will have a chance to compete with current space leaders and seriously boost its economy after Brexit.