Sixty years ago to the day (November 13) the first Skylark rocket was launched into space.

You may never have heard of this British space mission, but information it gained paved the way for the nation’s involvement in a newly-formed Nasa, the development of the Hubble Telescope and the continued work of the European Space Agency.

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However, the success of Skylark is finally being celebrated in a new Science Museum exhibition created to honour the role the 441 Skylark missions played in the Space Race.

In a small alcove in the museum’s space hall, there is a real Skylark rocket, videos with rocket scientists and pieces of technology from this pioneering space programme.

Launch

What is the Skylark rocket programme?

Skylark was Britain’s first foray into space.

Initially designed as a military programme at the height of the Cold War, the plan was to send rockets up to the upper atmosphere as it was believed then that future wars would be fought up in space.

However, Skylark soon became both a military and scientific programme that made hugely important contributions to space research. Doug Millar, deputy keeper of technologies and engineering at the Science Museum, said that it is only now receiving the recognition it should.

“Without Skylark”, he said, “it is unlikely that UK would be able to contribute to Hubble”.

Over 48 years between 1957 and 2005, 441 Skylark missions were launched.

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When was the first one launched?

The first Slylark rocket was launched from the Woomera rocket range in the South Australian desert on November 13, 1957. This maiden probe spent 10 minutes in space.

What did a Skylark rocket look like?

A Skylark - which resembled a small missile - was a sounding rocket, which means it takes measurements on its journey into the upper atmosphere. 

The first Skylark was about six metres tall and had a diameter of 45cm.

Skylark

What did the Skylark find out?

Skylark was used to test scientific instruments, and these same devices were used on the Nasa Space Shuttle. The information gathered also allowed Britain to join forces with American scientists to help develop the world’s first international satellite, Ariel 1.

By going beyond the reach of where scientific balloons could fly, information could be gathered on temperature, density and wind direction.

It was also critical in training a generation of scientists and engineers in the space field.

How was Skylark funded?

Skylark was funded by the British Government until 1979, before it was passed to commercial operators who continued it until 2005. The final Skylark launch took place in Esrange, Sweden on May 2, 2005

Skylark: Britain’s Pioneering Space Rocket is on from November 13 at the Science Museum in London; free entry.

Skylark

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