Postcards from the Past

UK firsts

In tandem with the ongoing work on launcher vehicles and ground-breaking moves in the development of ion thruster technologies, the RAE team led the UK's first satellite research programme. A total of six satellites were launched as part of the Ariel programme to study the ionosphere, X-Ray astronomy and cosmic rays. The UK became only the third country to have a satellite orbiting the Earth when Ariel 1 was launched in 1962 and the third satellite in the series was the first to be wholly designed and constructed in the UK. Full testing for the Ariel 5 satellite to study X-Ray sources as well as the low energy X-Ray telescope of Ariel 6 was completed at RAE prior to their respective launches in 1974 and 1979.

In the late 60s, the team led the development of the X Series of small satellites to demonstrate a range of satellite technologies. The third satellite in this series was called Prospero and was launched with the Black Arrow launcher rocket from the rocket-testing facility at Woomera in Australia on October 28th 1971.

This was the first (and, to date, only) Earth satellite mission where both the satellite and its carrier rocket were designed, built and tested entirely in the UK. The mission was controlled by the RAE's Control Centre at Farnborough and the associated Lasham Ground Station and, significantly, featured innovative early use of automation using EMR 6130 computers. Miranda, the final satellite in the X series, was launched in 1974 and not only included an innovative and highly effective solar array but also used a novel propane cold gas thruster system to provide full attitude control.

Although the latter half of the 1970s saw something of a hiatus in Government support for new space technologies, RAE continued working on its satellite development programmes and began making inroads into the use of ion thruster technology. It also provided the UK contribution to the US/UK/West Germany AMPTE mission, part of the Explorer programme to study the Earth's magnetosphere and radiation belts. Testing of the satellite was completed by RAE in Farnborough prior to its launch on a Delta 3924 rocket from Cape Canaveral in August 1984.

Despite a cooling of financial support and the move away from the civilian space work, RAE continued to support the development of military space technologies and played a central role in the development of the Skynet series of communications satellites throughout the 1970s. Ongoing evolution of performance and capabilities has built on the success of these highly successful satellites, with QinetiQ currently working in partnership with Airbus to develop the sixth generation of Skynet.

Using technology and experience from its Blue Streak ballistic missile, the team at RAE also worked with their counterparts in France and Germany to develop a civilian satellite launcher, Europa 1. After 10 test launches, the programme was cancelled amid budget cuts. However, the European collaboration paved the way for the European Space Agency and eventually culminated with the successful development of what would become the world's premier commercial launch system - Ariane.