In 1957 Britain joined the space race with the launch of its first rocket, Skylark.
Built from many component parts, the rocket could be powered with different-sized motors.
Skylark had military origins.
In 1957–58 Skylark was part of Britain’s contribution to the International Geophysical Year – a global project to research the physics of the Earth.
The first Skylark rocket stood 6 metres tall with a body 45 cm in diameter.
Twelve different designs were developed during Skylark’s long history.
The final version of the Skylark rocket design reached 13 metres in height.
Skylark conducted the first X-ray surveys of the southern sky and in the 1970s produced some of the earliest ultraviolet images of the cosmos.
Other early experiments measured the temperature, density and wind direction of the upper atmosphere by detonating grenades that were ejected from the rocket as it climbed.
Every part of the rocket was built and packaged in Britain before being flown to Australia by aircraft that were fitted with special doors to accommodate Skylarks’ long Raven motors.
Many of the world’s leading space scientists – from university professors to Space Shuttle astronauts – built their careers on the Skylark programme.
Scientist Chris Rapley CBE worked on three Skylark flights in the 1970s. He then moved to the United States to join NASA’s Solar Maximum Mission.
Zarnecki worked on Skylark in the 1970s and went on to leading roles with high-profile space missions, including the Giotto probe and the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft to Saturn and Titan in 1997.
The knowledge and expertise gained by British teams with Skylark underpins the leading position that Britain maintains in today’s global space science community.
Scientists at the University of Leicester designed this detector after flying similar instruments on Skylark rockets.
Skylark’s notable achievements include gathering data for a new atlas of astronomical X-ray sources.
New techniques for imaging X-rays – first tested on Skylark – were then used on a Challenger Space Shuttle mission in 1985.
The Science Museum would like to thank the following individuals and organisations for their help in the preparation of the Skylark display:
Professor Len Culhane FRS
Professor Lucie Green
John Harlow MBE
Professor Ken Pounds CBE FRS
Professor Chris Rapley CBE
Professor Alan Smith
Professor John Zarnecki FRAS FInstP
European Space Agency
Farnborough Air Sciences Trust
Mullard Space Science Laboratory
National Archives of Australia
Royal Astronomical Society
Westcott Venture Park