The History of the UK’s Black Arrow Rocket Programme
Black Arrow Programme
What is Black Arrow?
The Black Arrow programme is of immense technical and historical importance in the UK, having played a revolutionary role in placing the first UK-designed and manufactured artificial satellite into Earth’s orbit.
Throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, the rocketry programme developed from early UK-conducted space research and experimental programmes carried out by the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) in Farnborough. These experimental programmes involved design and construction projects in line with advances within the space industry; a series of various launch vehicles and rocket engines; and all associated ground-based test facilities and launch infrastructure in both the UK and in Woomera, Australia.
The initial purpose of the Black Arrow programme was to investigate whether or not a rocket constructed using existing processes and technologies would be capable of launch satellites into space.
Black Arrow Rocket Development
The Black Arrow rocket instigated from a proposal by the RAE for a launch vehicle with the ability of launching a 144kg artificial satellite into low Earth orbit with the purpose of testing rocketry systems previously designed for larger spacecrafts.
The Black Arrow programme was authorised in 1964, though was quickly put on hold due to government reduction in expenditure. Following another general election, the continuation of the programme was approved with numerous modifications involving the reduction of launches detailed as part of the test programme from five to three launches, and a maiden launch scheduled for 1968.
Much of the methods and technologies utilised in construction of the Black Arrow rocket had previously been established and even flight-proven on either the Blue Steel missile or Black Knight rocket, from which many senior staff members transferred directly to work as part of the Black Arrow programme. The Black Arrow rocket was designed to recycle as many technological components as possible from programmes previously developed with the purpose of major cost reduction and development process simplification.
The first and second stage engines of the Black Arrow rocket were produced and tested at a factory in Warwickshire before being shipped to the Isle of Wight where they were assembled and integrated into the rocket. The third stage of the rocket was produced in Somerset, while the propellant was produced in Essex.
Black Arrow was named using a method developed by the Ministry of Supply which involves the incorporation of both a colour and a noun (Rainbow Code).
A total of 5 Black Arrow rockets were created in the UK throughout the time the Black Arrow programme was active:
1. Suborbital test launch of the first and second stages without payload on 28th June 1969
2. Suborbital test launch of the first and second stages with dummy payload of 4th March 1970
3. Orbital test launch on 2nd September 1970, though the second stage was unable to withstand the pressure of launch, therefore, the rocket failed to enter into Earth’s orbit and the payload was lost
4. The rocket successfully reached orbital launch and placed the Prospero satellites into space (which is still in orbit) on the 28th of October 1971
5. The 5th rocket was never launched due to the cancellation of the programme and is currently being exhibited at the Science Museum in London
The first stages of the rockets launched in September 1970 and October 1971 were recovered from the launch site in Woomera, South Australia and transported back to the UK at the beginning of 2020 by Skyrora.
Black Arrow Rocket Specifications and Characteristics
Black Arrow was a three-stage, 13-metre-tall, 2-metre-wide rocket developed during the 1960s. The British satellite carrier launch vehicle weighed 18 tonnes, was designed for single use and was powered by a fuel combination of Hydrogen Peroxide and Kerosene. The vehicle was capable of delivering up to 135kg of payload into low Earth orbit.
The renowned UK-built light-class rocket had a single eight-chambered engine in its first stage. The oxidiser tanks for the first and second stages were located beneath the fuel tanks in order to lower the centre of gravity by positioning the higher-density propellant at the bottom of the vehicle, thus making the launch vehicle easier to control.
In order to provide attitude control of the first two stages of the rocket, thrust vectoring was utilised and the combustion chambers of the first stage were able to gimbal either way alone one axis. The second stage of the Black Arrow launch vehicle incorporated the use of two combustion chambers, providing a more effective level of control. The third stage of the rocket was a solid rocket motor that was spin-stabilised, whereby the launch vehicle was stabilised by means of rotation.
The colour scheme harnessed for the exterior of the launch vehicle incorporated the use of stripes in order to determine the roll angle of the vehicle during launch, and a coloured fairing for the purpose of boosting visibility.
Black Arrow Rocket Launch
Between 1969 and 1971, the Black Arrow rocket was utilised for four separate launches from the Woomera Prohibited Area in Australia. The final flight in the programme was the first and only successful orbital launch to have ever been conducted by the UK, placing the Prospero artificial satellite into orbit around planet Earth.
The first two launches of the Black Arrow rocket were demonstration flights, with a third stage utilised in many battleships and a payload made from a boilerplate. During the rocket’s maiden launch, an error within the electrical system caused two of the combustion chambers of the first stage to swing back and forth. Before the vehicle was even able to clear the launch pad, the rocket was erratically unstable and began to disintegrate no longer than one minute later. After the engine failed completely and the entire rocket began to fall back to Earth, the vehicle was destroyed with the use of range safety.
The second launch of the Black Arrow rocket in the programme was a successful launch, though the first “all-up” launch was the third in the programme, which took place in 1970 on the 2nd of September, and was the UK’s first attempt to launch a satellite into space. Due to a leak in the pressurisation system of the second stage, this launch was additionally unsuccessful as it caused the engine to cut out early. Despite the fact that the third stage of the rocket was still able to fire, the vehicle was unable to reach orbital status and re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere over the Gulf of Carpentaria.
The fourth and final launch in the series successfully placed the Prospero satellite into Earth’s orbit, making the UK the sixth nation in the world to launch a satellite into Earth’s orbit by means of an indigenously developed satellite carrier launch vehicle.
All four of the launches in the Black Arrow programme took place from Woomera, Australia. This site has previously acted as a test launch site for the Black Knight launch vehicle.
The Cancellation of the Black Arrow Programme
On the 29th of July 1971, it was announced by the House of Commons that the Black Arrow project was to be cancelled. The Black Arrow R3 rocket however had already been shipped to the same launch site in Woomera, with the second stage of the R3 rocket having arrived three days prior to the announcement of the cancellation. It was on these grounds that permission for the launch to go ahead was still granted.
The launch programme was ended due to the inability to continue the funding required, and it was deemed more cost-effective for the Ministry of Defence to utilise the American Scout rocket in place of the Black Arrow programme, which had a similar payload capacity.
The final Black Arrow launch vehicle to be constructed as part of the programme was the R4 rocket, which was never launched due to the programme cancellation. This UK-built rocket is now on display in the Science Museum in London, alongside the flight spare for the Prospero satellite. At the launch site in Woomera, Australia, a replica of the Black Arrow launch vehicle stands in the Rocket Park.
The UK is currently the only country to have successfully launch a launch capability for small satellites, for it then to have been discarded. Click here to understand more about Skyrora’s role in driving the UK toward sovereign launch for the first time since the cancellation of the Black Arrow programme in the early 1970s.
Where Is Black Arrow Now?
Black Arrow R2 was tested at Woomera, South Australia on 2nd September 1970. It determined the altitude of its third stage with respect to that of the jettisoned second. This information was then used to perfect the design of the Black Arrow R3’s third stage. Black Arrow R3 successfully placed the satellite known as ‘Prospero’ into orbit on 28th October 1971. Skyrora recovered the first stages of R2 and R3.
Skyrora initially brought the Black Arrow remains to Penicuik, Midlothian. At the beginning of the year in 2019, shortly after its 10,000-mile return to the UK, Black Arrow was unveiled at a gala dinner in tribute to the UK’s long term space plans. Read more about the unveiling here. The artefacts are currently on loan to the Farnborough Air Sciences Trust (FAST) Museum for the next three years until they are returned to Scottish soil once again.
Among those invited were two of the engineers from the original Black Arrow programme, alongside UK Space Agency representatives, European Space Agency representatives and Simon Rochelle, Air Vice Marshall, who spoke at the event. Other speeches conducted came from the Royal Air Force and the London Science Museum.
Skyrora and the Scottish Parliament participated in one of Holyrood’s first space debates on the same day as the 50th anniversary of the first suborbital test launch of Black Arrow, which took place on the 28th of June 1969. Skyrora held a celebratory event for the anniversary at the Farnborough Air Sciences Trust (FAST) Museum at which the artefacts were put on display and several members of the UK Space Agency delivered a speech in celebration of the historic event. Read more about Skyrora’s efforts for the 50th anniversary event here.
The UK-developed rocket stages then made their first appearance in England, having been displayed at the 2019 Royal International Air Tattoo at RAF Fairford, just 92 miles from the programme’s original test site on the Isle of Wight.
The intent of this display was to demonstrate how space technology is being deployed and how it is helping to counter threats to our everyday lives. The 2019 air show was particularly poignant as it took place on the exact same day as the first Moon landing, 50 years prior on 20th July 1969.
This October will mark the 50th anniversary of the successful launch of Black Arrow R3 which took place on the 28th of October 1971, placing the Prospero satellite into Earth’s orbit which remains there to this day. The successful launch of Black Arrow R3 still represents the only British rocket to carry a British satellite into space. To celebrate the anniversary Skyrora are hosting a drinks reception at the FAST Museum on the 7th of July, which will feature several talks from a variety of speakers while providing the opportunity to network with others over drinks and canapes.
The Black Arrow artefacts have now been moved to be put on public display at the Farnborough Air Sciences Trust (FAST) Museum, close to the original programme birthplace, the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE). The programme grew from earlier UK space research and development programmes undertaken by the RAE Space Department at Farnborough.
The historic exhibit has been lent to the FAST Museum and is presented in the authentic condition in which it survived launch recovery. The exhibit lies opposite a full-size replica of Britain’s first successful piloted machine, British Army Aeroplane No 1A.
Black Arrow’s Influence on Skyrora
The use of similar technology to that used in Black Arrow is highly advantageous to Skyrora, in that it is a proven technology that has good performance, is cost-effective, easy to handle and produces relatively low levels of harmful emissions.
Black Arrow demonstrates the particular advantages of using HTP as a form of propellant. Though its performance is not quite as good as liquid oxygen, it does make for a compact, structurally efficient vehicle.Furthermore, this propulsion formula is able to decompose into 600-degree steam and free oxygen by passing it over a catalyst which makes the engine self-ignitable and runs the turbopumps much more easily than with liquid oxidiser, just as Black Arrow did.
Although Skyrora are inspired by Black Arrow, there are still several differences between the fuel combinations. Skyrora have a slightly fuel richer propellant, in that we use six-parts hydrogen peroxide to one-part kerosene, whereas Black Arrow used eight-parts Hydrogen Peroxide to one-part Kerosene.
The fuel has the advantage of not requiring cryogenic storage alongside the extra handling and insulation that goes along with it. This is very convenient for the hot Australian desert, or for Skyrora’s launches from Northern Scotland whereby lower temperatures are expected and a lesser amount of launch opportunities are available.
- UK Space Agency. (2020). 50 Years Since Black Arrow Launched the UK into Space. Available: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/50-years-since-black-arrow-launched-the-uk-into-space. Last accessed 10th May 2021.
- Wikipedia. (2020). Black Arrow. Available: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Arrow. Last accessed 10th May 2021.
- Thorpe, E. (2020). Black Arrow - The First British Rocket. Available: https://orbitaltoday.com/2020/12/21/black-arrow-the-first-british-rocket/. Last accessed 10th May 2021.