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Space history

Ariel-1 was the world’s first international satellite. Britain stepped up to an offer from NASA to launch scientific satellites at an international meeting on space research. The Ariel-1 spacecraft, launched in 1962, was designed and built by NASA and it carried seven British experiments designed to study the ionosphere – the top of the Earth’s atmosphere - and the radiation coming from the Sun. At that time, very little was known about the space environment.

Eight years later in 1967 the first spacecraft to be entirely built in the UK, Ariel-3, was launched. This helped build technical skills which led to the first telecommunication satellites built in the UK and later to the Giotto spacecraft which intercepted Halley’s Comet in 1986.

The early work also led to the Prospero satellite launched into orbit by a Black Arrow vehicle on 28 October 1971. This was the only time a British satellite was launched on a British rocket. A Black Arrow rocket is on display in the Science Museum in London and Prospero remains in orbit to this day.

From this point, the UK took the lead in satellite technology as well as beginning the UK’s long history of international collaboration. Now the UK is home to a dynamic, budding space sector, worth £9.1 billion and supporting 80,000 jobs across a variety of industries.

Explore our interactive space history timeline to find out more about the UK's involvement in space.

Listen to the podcasts below to hear more about the UK’s history in space from the people who were then when it happened…

Jodrell Bank

Listen to an interview with Sir Bernard Lovell recorded in Sir Bernard's office at the Jodrell Bank Observatory. It is mixed with archive taken from a 1957 Government film. Sir Bernard talks of his wartime experiences with leading physicist Patrick Blackett, his inspiration for the giant 'Mark 1' Jodrell Bank radio telescope and tracking the Sputnik satellite.

Bernard Lovell 1 (MP3, 8.7 Mb) 

Sir Bernard Lovell talks to science presenter Richard Hollingham about recent developments in radio astronomy and cosmology.

Bernard Lovell 2 (MP3, 3.7 Mb) 

The UK rocket programme

Professor Ken Pounds of the University of Leicester talks about the early days of the UK's Skylark rocket sounding programme. Skylark was first launched in 1957 and remained in use until 2006 - making it the world's longest running space programme. Archive is taken from a 1957 film, 'Dateline Britain'.

Skylark (MP3, 7.0 Mb) 

Jim Scragg and Ray Wheeler return to the (once secret) UK rocket testing site on the Isle of Wight. They tour the site, used to test Black Knight and Black Arrow, with science presenter Richard Hollingham.

Black Knight (MP3, 9.4 Mb) 

Roy Dommett recalls his time on the Blue Streak rocket programme. Blue Streak was originally developed as a missile in the 1950s. It was adapted in the 1960s to form the first stage of a European satellite launch vehicle. Although the Blue Streak rocket worked well, the European vehicle was never successful. The archive is from a Government film aimed at publicising the project.

Blue Streak (MP3, 6.4 Mb) 

The early UK satellite programme

Ken Pounds talks to Richard Hollingham about his work on the UK's first satellite, Ariel 1, launched in 1962.

Ariel 1 (MP3, 3.5 Mb) 

Reginald Fox oversaw the construction of Ariel 3, the first satellite to be designed and built in the UK. He talks about the project, the launch and aftermath.

Ariel 3 (MP3, 3.8 Mb) 

Richard Tremayne-Smith worked on Prospero, the only British satellite to be launched on a British rocket (Black Arrow). He tells how the launch went ahead even though the project had been cancelled!

Prospero (MP3, 6.9 Mb) 

All material (including archive and interviews) Crown Copyright.

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The UK Space Agency

The UK Space Agency is at the heart of UK efforts to explore and benefit from space.

The UK's thriving space sector contributes £9.1 billion a year to the UK economy and directly employs 28,900 with an average growth rate of almost 7.5%. (The Size and Health of the UK Space Sector 2010/11, preliminary survey results.)

View a list of organisations that we work with.

UK space sector videos

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