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50 Years of the UK in Space

26 Apr 2012


The UK is celebrating 50 years since it joined the exclusive ranks of space faring nations. On 26 April 1962 Ariel-1, the first satellite to be designed and operated by the UK, was launched.


Professor Peter Willmore & model of Ariel-1. Credit: Max Alexander. (JPG, 3.7 Mb) 
Professor Peter Willmore & model of Ariel-1.
Credit: Max Alexander.

Teams at UK universities responded to a call in 1959 from NASA for international partners in space research. Britain has remained a nation of space pioneers in terms of innovation and technology as well as in the commercial development of space services such as communications satellites - a field the UK now leads in.

From Ariel-1 and the first British space scientists and engineers, a whole industry has grown. UK industry continues to hold its position in an increasingly competitive and diverse global space sector. Space continues to capture scientists’ and the public’s imagination.

Business Secretary Vince Cable said:

Today’s anniversary marks 50 years of the UK leading the way in space technology and thanks to our high tech businesses and world class research base, I’m confident that we have a bright future ahead too. The UK space industry is a shining example of how investment in innovation drives growth and supports jobs.”

Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts said:

“Fifty years ago, the UK helped build the first international satellite, and we have continued to be world leaders in space technology and research ever since. The Government is absolutely committed to the UK space sector’s future success. Through the UK Space Agency, we’re reducing the regulatory burden on satellite operators, investing in research and development projects and giving businesses the support they need to grow.”

Ariel-1 was the first international satellite and this collaborative spirit remains at the heart of much of the work carried out in the UK. The quality of expertise, facilities and collaborative environment in the UK mean that British institutions and companies continue to take the lead developing international space missions.

University College London’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory and the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory both played a key role in the Japanese Hinode mission to study solar flares and Coronal Mass Ejections.

Ariel and Black Arrow. Credit: Science Museum. (JPG, 3.0 Mb) 
Ariel and Black Arrow.
Credit: Science Museum.

The UK will soon be handing the Mid Infrared Instrument over to NASA for inclusion into the James Webb Space Telescope having led a European consortium of more than 20 institutions to develop and build the instrument.

British companies have also signed several major contracts this year. For example Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd has been contracted by ESA to build the next eight Galileo satellites for its satellite navigation system. The UK space sector is poised for further growth and even more ambitious projects.

Dr David Williams, Chief Executive at the UK Space Agency said:

“There has never been a more exciting time to be involved in the UK space sector. Building on a legacy of fifty years of excellence, UK businesses and institutions are currently involved in some of the most advanced and innovative space projects. Even in the short time that the UK Space Agency has been in operation we have had some huge successes and we hope to sustain this for the next half century and beyond.”

Documents are only now being released that explain the full story of the Ariel-1 mission. A product of the Cold War space race it ultimately became one of its victims when the mission was cut short by a US high altitude nuclear test. The Ariel series went on to become the foundation for the future of Britain in space.

We are now in an era in which space is more accessible than ever before, and the services it offers become increasingly essential to our daily lives.

To celebrate the anniversary of the launch of Ariel-1 the UK Space Agency are holding a year of events to mark this milestone and look to the future of the industry. This year is being launched today (26 April) with a conference held by the UK Space Agency and the Science Museum.

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I work in space

Ian Whittaker I work as a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Otago.