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In pictures: The Black Arrow rocket

Published: 22 October 2021

Take a closer look at the Black Arrow rocket, and find out more about the future of space flight from Britain.

On 28 October 1971, a British Black Arrow rocket launched the Prospero satellite into an orbit of the Earth.

Black Arrow R3, 28 October 1971. GKN Aerospace
Black Arrow R3, 28th October 1971.

The satellite is still up there and should remain so for many more decades.

X3 'Prospero' satellite, flight spare, designed and made by British Aircraft Corporation, 1971
Science Museum Group Collection More information about X3 'Prospero' satellite, flight spare, designed and made by British Aircraft Corporation, 1971

Part of the rocket fell back to Earth and in 2018 was brought back to Britain.

Prospero flight spare satellite, Exploring Space gallery. Skyrora Ltd
Black Arrow R3 first stage, 2019.

But if you want to see an intact rocket up close then the Prospero rocket’s successor—which was never launched—is on display in the Science Museum’s Exploring Space Gallery.

Black Arrow R4 in the Science Museum's Exploring Space gallery
Science Museum Group Collection More information about Black Arrow R4 in the Science Museum's Exploring Space gallery

The Science Museum acquired the rocket back in 1972 and for many years it was displayed on the gallery floor.

Black Arrow R4 in Science Museum’s Exploration of Space Gallery, 1986. Science Museum Group
Black Arrow R4 in Science Museum’s Exploration of Space Gallery, 1986.

In 2000, it was suspended from the gallery ceiling with the stages separated to show something of how a rocket works.

Black Arrow R4 in Science Museum’s Exploring Space Gallery, 2000. Science Museum Group
Black Arrow R4 in Science Museum’s Exploring Space Gallery, 2000.

The museum curators worked with the team that made the rocket all those years ago. Their former company was based on the Isle of Wight, where the rockets were also test-fired.

Black Arrow R0 readied for test firing, Isle of Wight, 1969. GKN Aerospace
Black Arrow R0 readied for test firing, Isle of Wight, 1969.

The team leader described one of his concerns at the time over the testing. At the base of the rocket’s first stage and in the middle of the engine nozzles is a ball.

Black Arrow R3 Gamma 8 first stage engine. Science Museum Group
Black Arrow Gamma 8 first stage engine—the small ball is visible at the centre

This ball was gripped by a hydraulic clamp, preventing the rocket from taking off while the engine reached maximum thrust. If that clamp had failed, the rocket would have taken off from the Isle of Wight by mistake!

Black Arrow hold down clamp. Science Museum Group
Black Arrow hold-down clamp.

The actual rocket launching took place in Australia at a location called Woomera.

The pin on the map shows the location of Woomera, South Australia

The rocket stage that was later returned to Britain was retrieved from the Australian desert, where it had lain for the best part of half a century.

Black Arrow R3 first stage, Australia.
Black Arrow R3 first stage, Australia.

If we go along the length of the unlaunched rocket in the Science Museum’s gallery, we can see some of its mechanisms. In the base of the open fairings, there's a ring surrounded by six little rocket thrusters called Imps.

Black Arrow R3 satellite turntable showing Imp thrusters. Science Museum Group
Black Arrow R3 satellite turntable showing Imp thrusters.

The rocket’s third stage motor—named Waxwing after the bird of the same name—and the satellite sat on this ring. When the Imps fired, the entire third stage, with satellite, was spun at three revolutions per second. This would help stabilize the satellite when it was finally released into orbit.

Prospero flight spare satellite on Black Arrow’s Waxwing rocket motor. Science Museum Group
Prospero flight spare satellite on Black Arrow’s Waxwing rocket motor.

After launch, the ground stations in Australia would have received signals from the rocket and its satellite payload throughout the climb into space. When stations in Alaska started to receive signals 40 minutes after launch, the Black Arrow teams knew their satellite was safely in orbit. Until that moment the satellite was referred to as X3. Once in orbit, it was renamed Prospero after the magician in William Shakespeare’s play The Tempest.

Prospero was an experimental satellite, testing materials and systems that could be used in the manufacture of communications satellites.

Prospero satellite surfaces experiment flight spare. Science Museum Group
Surfaces experiment flight spare

But unfortunately no more Black Arrows flew, and the next in the series of experimental satellites—Miranda—was launched by a NASA Scout rocket.

Scout rocket, Exploring Space gallery. Science Museum Group
Scout rocket. Exploring Space gallery.

But Prospero’s legacy lives on. The knowledge gained by British industry from the Prospero mission and others that followed helped develop what is today a multi-billion pound satellite industry in Britain.

Eurostar 3000 communications satellite. Science Museum Group Science Museum Group
Eurostar 3000 communications satellite.

And the future now looks rosy for a brand new rocket industry in Britain. After decades without any major involvement in rockets, Britain is poised to start launching rockets from its own territory—something that has never been done before.

UK Spaceports. LaunchUK, UK Space Agency LaunchUK, UK Space Agency