Skylark: Britain’s Pioneering Space Rocket    

Science Museum

In 1957 Britain joined the space race with the launch of its first rocket, Skylark.

Skylark rocket model, scale 1:6, From the collection of: Science Museum
What type of rocket was Skylark?
Skylark was a sounding rocket – an unmanned space vehicle designed to carry scientific instruments.
Diagram showing key components of a Skylark rocket, From the collection of: Science Museum

Built from many component parts, the rocket could be powered with different-sized motors.

Early Skylark components and models, From the collection of: Science Museum
Skylark – a very British project 
The success of Skylark demonstrated the ingenuity, cutting-edge research and ‘can do’ spirit of British space scientists and engineers. 
Blue Streak rocket model, scale 1:20, From the collection of: Science Museum

Skylark had military origins.

International Geophysical Year commemorative booklet, From the collection of: Science Museum

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.

Raven VI motor nozzle, From the collection of: Science Museum

The first Skylark rocket stood 6 metres tall with a body 45 cm in diameter.

Cuckoo IV motor, From the collection of: Science Museum

Twelve different designs were developed during Skylark’s long history.

Skylark user’s handbook, From the collection of: Science Museum

The final version of the Skylark rocket design reached 13 metres in height.

Sun and Moon sensors, 1964, From the collection of: Science Museum
On-board experiments
During Skylark’s 10-minute flight time, researchers gathered data to help explore many fundamental scientific questions.
X-ray astronomy instrument, From the collection of: Science Museum

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.

Langmuir probe, From the collection of: Science Museum

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.

Woomera rocket launch site, From the collection of: Science Museum
Launching Skylark
Early Skylark rockets were launched from the Woomera test range in the South Australian desert. 
Priming console, From the collection of: Science Museum

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.

Artefacts from Skylark’s later flights, From the collection of: Science Museum
Skylark’s long and distinguished career
In 1978 the British government stopped funding the Skylark programme and passed it to commercial operators who continued to fly the rocket until 2005. 
Doctoral theses by John Zarnecki, Chris Rapley and Ken Pounds, From the collection of: Science Museum

Many of the world’s leading space scientists – from university professors to Space Shuttle astronauts – built their careers on the Skylark programme.

Solar Maximum Mission satellite, display model, scale 1:6, From the collection of: Science Museum

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.

Giotto spacecraft, display model, scale 1:20, From the collection of: Science Museum

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.

Ariel 1 satellite cosmic ray detector, From the collection of: Science Museum
From Skylark to satellite
Skylark was used to test scientific instruments that were later flown successfully on satellites and the NASA Space Shuttle.
Lyman alpha electronics module, From the collection of: Science Museum

The knowledge and expertise gained by British teams with Skylark underpins the leading position that Britain maintains in today’s global space science community.

Ariel 5 X-ray astronomy detector, From the collection of: Science Museum

Scientists at the University of Leicester designed this detector after flying similar instruments on Skylark rockets.

X-ray coded mask tested on Skylark SL 1501, From the collection of: Science Museum

Skylark’s notable achievements include gathering data for a new atlas of astronomical X-ray sources.

X-ray detector, From the collection of: Science Museum

New techniques for imaging X-rays – first tested on Skylark – were then used on a Challenger Space Shuttle mission in 1985.

Credits: Story

The Science Museum would like to thank the following individuals and organisations for their help in the preparation of the Skylark display:

Ed Andrews
Hugo Auffret
Robin Brand
Professor Len Culhane FRS
Professor Lucie Green
John Harlow MBE
Professor Ken Pounds CBE FRS
Professor Chris Rapley CBE
Professor Alan Smith
Craig Theobold
Professor John Zarnecki FRAS FInstP

European Space Agency
Farnborough Air Sciences Trust
Met Office
Mullard Space Science Laboratory
National Archives of Australia
Royal Astronomical Society
Westcott Venture Park

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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