Ariel 1, the first British satellite

Ariel 1, named by Prime Minister Harold Macmillan after the spirit appearing in William Shakespeare’s play The Tempest and also known as UK-1, was the first British satellite, and the first satellite in the Ariel programme; the 62-kilogram British artificial satellite was putted into a Low Earth Orbit (LEO) on April 26, 1962.

With a 58-centimetre diameter and a height of twenty-two centimetres, its launch in 1962 made the United Kingdom of Great Britain the third country to operate a satellite, after the Soviet Union and the United States of America. It was constructed in both the United States of America and the UK by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and SERC, under an agreement reached as the result of political discussions in 1959 and 1960.

The Skylark sounding rocket

Skylark was a British sounding rocket design. The seven and a half meters long and forty-five centimetres in diameter Skylark sounding rocket was first launched in 1957 from Woomera, Australia and its 441st and final launch took place from Esrange, Sweden on May 2, 2005. Launches had been carried out from sites in Europe, Australia, and South America, with use far beyond the UK by NASA, the European Space Research Organisation (ESRO), and German and Swedish space organizations.

The design first dates to 1955, when initial work was carried out by the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough and the Rocket Propulsion Establishment at Westcott. The first vehicles were ready less than two years later, and sent for testing to Woomera during the International Geophysical Year.

During the 1960s Skylark evolved into an excellent platform for space astronomy, with its ability to point at the Sun, Moon, or a star. It was used to obtain the first good-quality X-ray images of the solar corona. Within the UK national programme, the frequency of Skylark launches peaked at twenty in 1965 (from Woomera), with almost two hundred flights between 1957 and 1978. The first X-ray surveys of the sky in the Southern Hemisphere were provided by Skylark launches.

In 1975, The Federal Republic of Germany through the DFVLR (now German Aerospace Center or DLR) agreed with Australia to launch a Skylark rocket at Woomera for scientific purposes. The launch took place on March 14, 1975. This was followed by three more, launched on February 22, March 13, 1979, and August 24, 1987.

The British government decided to end the programme in 1977, thinking that future “low weight” research would be carried out on the American Space Shuttle instead.

The Ariel programme

Ariel was a British satellite research programme conducted between the early 1960s and 1980s. Six satellites were launched as part of the programme, starting with the first British satellite, Ariel 1, which was launched on April 26, 1962, and concluding with the launch of Ariel 6 on June 2, 1979. The first four were devoted to studying the ionosphere, the remaining two to X-ray astronomy and cosmic-ray studies.

The programme was conducted by the Science Research Council. The first two spacecraft were constructed by the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration, with subsequent spacecraft being produced in Britain. All launches were conducted using American rockets; Ariel 1 on a Thor-Delta, and the remainder on Scouts.

Ariel 1, the first British satellite

In late 1959, the Science and Engineering Research Council (SERC) proposed the development of Ariel 1 to NASA, following an offer made by the United States of America at a meeting of the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) to provide assistance to other countries with the development and launch of scientific spacecraft.

Construction occurred at the Goddard Space Flight Center. SERC provided the experiments, conducted operations, and later analysed and interpreted the results. Six experiments were carried aboard the satellite. Five of these examined the relationship between two types of solar radiation and changes in the Earth’s ionosphere.

Ariel 1, the first satellite from a nation besides the Soviet Union or the United States of America, was launched aboard an American Thor-Delta rocket (an early American expendable launch system used for twelve orbital launches in the early 1960s) from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 17 on April 26, 1962. Ariel 1 was among several satellites inadvertently damaged or destroyed by the Starfish Prime high-altitude nuclear test on July 9, 1962, and subsequent radiation belt. It decayed from orbit on April 24, 1976.

The Science and Engineering Research Council (SERC)

The Science and Engineering Research Council (SERC) was the UK agency in charge of publicly funded scientific and engineering research activities, including astronomy, biotechnology and biological sciences, space research and particle physics, between 1965 and 1994.

From its formation in 1965 until 1981, it was known as the Science Research Council (SRC). In 1981, to reflect the increased emphasis on engineering research, the SRC was renamed the Science and Engineering Research Council.

Starfish Prime and the end of Ariel 1

On July 9, 1962, mere weeks after Ariel 1 was put into orbit and had successfully begun transmitting data about the ionosphere back to Earth, British scientists were shocked when the sensors aboard Ariel 1 designed to measure radiation levels suddenly began to give wildly high readings. Initially, they assumed that the satellite’s instruments had failed or were otherwise just malfunctioning.

Starfish Prime was a July 9, 1962 high-altitude nuclear test conducted by the United States of America, a joint effort of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and the Defense Atomic Support Agency. It was launched from Johnston Island, and was the largest nuclear test conducted in outer space and one of five conducted by the United States of America in outer space. A Thor rocket (the first operational ballistic missile deployed by the U.S. Air Force) carrying a W49 (an American thermonuclear warhead, used on the Thor, Atlas, Jupiter, and Titan I ballistic missile systems) thermonuclear warhead (manufactured by Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory) and a Mk. 2 re-entry vehicle was launched from Johnston Island in the Pacific Ocean, about one thousand five-hundred kilometres west-southwest of Hawaii. The explosion took place at an altitude of four-hundred kilometres, above a point thirty kilometres southwest of Johnston Island. It produced a yield equivalent to one and a half megatons of TNT.

The Starfish test was one of five high-altitude tests grouped together as Operation Fishbowl within the larger Operation Dominic, a series of tests in 1962 begun in response to the Soviet announcement on August 30, 1961 that they would end a three-year moratorium on testing. In 1958 the United States had completed six high-altitude nuclear tests, but the high-altitude tests of that year produced many unexpected results and raised many new questions.

On July 9, 1962, at 09:00:09 Coordinated Universal Time (the primary time standard by which the world regulates clocks and time), the Starfish Prime test was detonated at an altitude of four hundred kilometres. Starfish Prime caused an electromagnetic pulse (EMP), which was far larger than expected, so much larger that it drove much of the instrumentation off scale, causing great difficulty in getting accurate measurements. The Starfish Prime electromagnetic pulse also made those effects known to the public by causing electrical damage in Hawaii, about one thousand and five hundred kilometres away from the detonation point, knocking out about three hundred streetlights, setting off numerous burglar alarms and damaging a telephone company microwave link.

As it turned out, as Ariel 1 was happily free-falling around the Earth, the US military had decided to detonate an experimental 1.4 megaton nuclear weapon named Starfish Prime in the upper atmosphere as part of Operation Fishbowl. The explosion, which happened on the other side of the planet to Ariel 1, sent a wave of additional radiation around the Earth that ultimately damaged some of the systems on Ariel 1, particularly its solar panels. It also affected the Telstar 1 satellite, the first commercially funded satellite to be ever launched.