Happy Birthday Prospero

When I was working for the National Trust I spent a lot of my early career working on researching and gathering data for the new exhibition at the New Needles Battery about the Highdown Rocket Testing site. So the heritage of British Rocketry is very close to my heart.

I am a fan girl for Prospero – The first (and last) all British built and launched satellite and as it is it’s Launch Birthday today I thought some of you might like to get to know Prospero and it’s launch rocket Black Arrow R3 a bit better. This blog contains information I gathered during my time working with some of the men and women who worked on these rocket program. I am not sure if their remembrances match the facts of the history books, but I believe that all I was told is true.

Back in the 1950’s The British Government had a top secret rocket building program – The Black Knight. The rockets were deigned and built on the Isle of Wight in a joint venture between the RAE (Royal Aircraft Establishment) Farnbourgh and Saunders Roe – ship and aircraft builders based in East Cowes IOW. The rockets were tested to ensure that all the on board technology was working correctly. These static tests were carried out on the Isle of Wight, at Highdown, a site high above Scratchells Bay, with fine views of the Needles Rocks and lighthouse. The rockets were strapped into test gantries, the workforce would retreat underground and the engines would be fired for a matter of seconds. The data was collected and reduced, everything was checked and the rockets were shipped off to Australia, where they were fired into space. Black Knight was the most successful rocket program of all time. The budget for the whole 20 year test project was less than NASA was spending in one day at that time. In fact data gathered from the Black Knight launches was used by NASA in it Apollo program – so you could say that the Isle of Wight helped put a man on the moon.

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Comic Book artist Geoff Campion’s depiction of testing at the Highdown site.

Fast forward a bit to the mid 1960’s and the focus of space has changed, to the potential of satellite technology. RAE, Saunders Roe and Marconi Systems (builders of satellites) looked at the potential of the Black Knight project to be able to become a satellite launch vehicle. The Black Knight was modified to become a three stage rocket and was renamed the Black Arrow. Building and testing of the Black Arrows began at Highdown and Marconi systems began work on a prototype satellite – Puck.

By October 1971 it was all systems go. The fourth Black Arrow Rocket R3 was in place in Woomera with the X3 satellite, now named Prospero, tucked safely in the nose cone of the rocket. On October 28th R3 in an almost text book launch, propelled Prospero into orbit high above the Earth and Prospero’s mission began.

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A full scale model of Prospero on display at the Needles New Battery – it once hung in the boardroom of Saunder Roe.

To be fair, it wasn’t much of a mission not to explore new worlds etc. etc. but it did boldly go where no British satellite had gone before! Prospero had two jobs, to send a signal back to Earth on safe arrival in orbit,  then to repeat the signal a day later to show that the solar cells were charging. This it did. It’s on board tape recorder made 730 plays until May 24th 1973, when it appears the solar cells were no longer charging this officially ended it’s operational status. Prospero was contacted annually until 1996 when it was officially deactivated – this coincided with the closure of the UK’s Defence Research Establishment. This was not quite the end. Prospero is turned on annually for it’s birthday – you might be able to contact it today if you have the right technology! Not bad for a 45 year old piece of space junk!

Prospero sits in a low Earth orbit and passes overhead twice a day, it is expected to do so until 2070 – almost 100 years after it’s launch – not bad for a two day mission. It certainly lasted longer than Britsh Rocketry. The weekend after the launch of R3, the workers of Highdown were given notice that the project was coming to an end. By the end of 1972 the Highdown site was closed, bulldozed, stripped of it’s assets and left to return to nature. The funding had been cut by the government. Offical reports during parliamentary debate show it was quoted that there was no future in satellite technology.

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The Highdown site today. The test gantries still visible at the extremities of the site with the Blockhouse safety bunker in the centre

If you want to get up close to Prospero, the X3 Flight Spare is on show at the Science Museum London. The Highdown test site is open to the public at the very west of the Isle of Wight and the National Trust manages an exhibition in the old underground bunkers of the Needles New Battery.

http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/visitmuseum/Plan_your_visit/exhibitions/exploring_space

https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/the-needles-old-battery-and-new-battery

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