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Postcards from Space: Looking back to fly forward

Jim Graham, MD, QinetiQ's space business

Bepi Colombo

Recently I wrote about the state-of-the-art instrumentation we have provided for material science experiments on the International Space Station and the recent launch of a new satellite to search for new exoplanets.

And, as it continues its journey to the innermost planet of our Solar System, the BepiColombo spacecraft is also benefiting from our advanced solar electronic propulsion system. Although our achievements over the past few years and decades certainly bear close scrutiny, I do believe they have helped to consolidate our leading role in space exploration and research – both as a trusted partner and as an industry pioneer. And working with a diverse community of stakeholders, partners and suppliers, there is no doubt we are helping the UK to build on its pedigree, expertise and influential role in space technology and science.

So I was delighted, therefore, to accept an invitation to a special event* to mark the 50th anniversary of the launch of the Black Arrow rocket, where a highlight was a talk from the only surviving member of the construction team detailing how they made the fuel tank. Developed during the 1960s, this satellite carrier rocket was the culmination of a concerted development programme led by scientists at the Royal Aircraft Establishment in Farnborough and led to the successful launch of the Prospero satellite into a low earth orbit in 1971. This was the first (and, to date, only) all-British mission – with the satellite and its carrier rocket both designed and built in the UK (*event was pre-covid).

The R3 Black Arrow rocket that carried the Prospero satellite into space was launched from a launch pad in Woomera in Australia and the first stage of the rocket landed in the Australian desert. An impressive statement of pioneering British space technology at the height of the so-called space race, this section of the rocket has finally returned to its original home. It was unveiled at the 50th anniversary celebration to mark the first successful launch of the Black Arrow rocket in 1970. The event* was held at the Cody Pavilion at the Farnborough Air Sciences Trust Museum on Wednesday 4th March, close to home for us here at QinetiQ, and where a model of our T5 Ion Thruster is on display (*event was pre-covid).

One can only wonder at the immense sense of pride felt by the Black Arrow scientists and engineers from the rocket’s first successful launch and, a year later, when the Prospero satellite entered orbit and clicked into life. Space technology has come a long way over the past 50 years, but we all feel the same sense of achievement with every step forward we make in space exploration and research. Certainly, when one considers the versatility, specification and the advanced propulsion and avionics systems of our latest generation of satellites, it is clear that QinetiQ’s space business is about to enter a very exciting new era. Not only is that a credit to every member of the team, but it also opens a new chapter in the UK’s role as a space pioneer.