Introducing SKYLARK

The SKYLARK rocket dominates our newly-revamped foyer in the School of Physics and Astronomy. This blog post provides some of the history of Leicester’s involvement in the SKYLARK project.

The involvement of the School of Physics and Astronomy in major space missions began with work developing instruments for Sounding Rocket flights. Starting in 1961, the Department has flown instruments on almost 70 sounding rockets, in programmes conducted by NASA and ESA, as well as in the British Skylark programme which was at its peak during the 1960’s and 70’s.

The majority of these instruments have been concerned with observations of astronomical objects at Extreme Ultraviolet and X-ray wavelengths.

SKYLARK originated in 1955 when the Royal Society embarked on a programme of upper atmosphere research associated with the International Geophysical Year of 1957/58. Initially the project called for an unguided, fin-stabilized vehicle capable of lifting a 45kg scientific payload to an altitude of around 100km. By collaboration with the royal aircraft establishment (RAE) at Farnborough this requirement progressed quickly to the design and construction of the first SKYLARK in 1956. At the same time, production of a suitable solid propellant motor was undertaken by the Rocket propulsion establishment (RPE) at Westcott and the Banwell division of Bristol aircraft Ltd. Given the name Raven – in keeping with RPE’s ornithological naming system- it was the biggest solid fuel rocket motor then in use, with a specific impulse of 1780 N s kg -1 (sea level) and a burning time of 30 seconds.

The Skylark rocket in the foyer of the Physics and Astronomy building at the University of Leicester.

A 30 metre gimbal mounted launch tower made from bailey bridge panels was also designed by the RAE team and was constructed by the Royal Ordnance factory at Woolwich. The complete launcher was erected at the Woomera (South Australia) rocket range by May 1956 and the first SKYLARK – a technological vehicle – was launched on 13th February 1957. After a further vehicle proving flight, the first scientific experiments were flown in SL 03 in July 1957; these were followed by a series of launches associated with the 1957/58 international geophysical year.

SKYLARK’s performance was greatly enhanced in 1960 by the addition of a booster stage (Cuckoo) burning for 4 seconds, giving 80 kN thrust and adding about 40% to the peak height for a given payload mass. Later additions to the SKYLARK motor family were the Goldfinch booster and Raven XI, which when used together gave an apogee of over 500 km for a payload of 100 kg mass.

Another important SKYLARK development was the introduction of a 3-axis stabilized attitude control unit (ACU) developed jointly by RAE and Elliot Automation Ltd., Frimley. The ACU was initially designed as a sun-pointing unit but later versions were available with sun, moon or star pointing sensors. After August 1964, many attitude controlled SkylarK s were launched, gathering much new information about the nature of the solar disk and other Galactic phenomena. Over 300 SKYLARKs were launched for scientific research purposes, yielding a very noteworthy success record.

While SKYLARKs are still in use, their application to astronomical research in the UK came to an end in 1978. Leicester scientists continued their rocket work through collaboration in the NASA sounding rocket programme. These flights made use of the Astrobee-F, of similar capability to the SKYLARK, and the Canadian Black Brant Vc. By 1985, diminishing scientific returns from the short observation times available with sounding rockets no longer justified the costs and involvement in these missions ceased.

However, most recently, we have developed new, much more efficient instruments that allow us to obtain significant scientific results within the time allowed by a sounding rocket flight. After a gap of 15 years, we have twice flown the Joint Plasmadynamic Experiment (J-PEX), a high-resolution extreme ultraviolet spectrometer, on a Black Brant IX rocket. The Black Brant IX is a two-stage system comprising a Terrier booster and Vc upper stage, which allows our heavy telescope to reach an altitude of 280km.

Shown below is a summary of SKYLARKs and other rockets used by the University of Leicester X-ray and Observational Astronomy group in their research programme since 1961.

Leicester SKYLARK Experiments

SL 37X-ray CameraUnstabilised1961
SL 40X-ray CameraUnstabilised1961
SL 42X-ray CameraUnstabilised1961
SL 45X-ray CameraUnstabilised1962
SL 46X-ray CameraUnstabilised1963
SL 47X-ray TelescopeUnstabilised1964
SL 83X-ray CameraUnstabilised1961
SL 84X-ray SpectrometerUnstabilised1963
SL 85X-ray SpectrometerUnstabilised1963
SL 103X-ray SpectrometerUnstabilised1963
SL 104X-ray SpectrometerUnstabilised1963
SL 105X-ray CameraUnstabilised1965
SL 106X-ray CameraUnstabilised1965
SL 114X-ray SpectrometerUnstabilised1962
SL 115X-ray SpectrometerUnstabilised1963
SL 118First X-ray Sky SurveyUnstabilised1967
SL 119First X-ray Sky SurveyUnstabilised1967
SL 126X-ray CameraUnstabilised1963
SL 127X-ray CameraUnstabilised1963
SL 128X-ray CameraUnstabilised1964
SL 129X-ray CameraUnstabilised1964
SL 132X-ray CameraUnstabilised1964
SL 133X-ray CameraUnstabilised1964
SL 138X-ray CameraUnstabilised1964
SL 301X-ray SpectographSun Pointing1964
SL 302X-ray SpectographSun Pointing1964
SL 303X-ray SpectographSun Pointing1965
SL 304X-ray Bragg Crystal SpectrometerSun Pointing1966
SL 305X-ray Bragg Crystal SpectrometerSun Pointing1967
SL 306X-ray Pinhole CameraSun Pointing1965
SL 307X-ray Pinhole CameraSun Pointing1966
SL 403Extra Galactic Survey of M87Moon Pointing1968
SL 404X-ray Pinhole CameraSun Pointing1969
SL 405X-ray Pinhole CameraSun Pointing1966
SL 406X-ray Pinhole CameraSun Pointing1966
SL 407X-ray Pinhole CameraSun Pointing1967
SL 408X-ray Pinhole CameraSun Pointing1968
SL 605Bragg Crystal SpectrometerSun Pointing1969
SL 723Large Area Sky SurveyUnstabilised1968
SL 724Large Area Sky SurveyUnstabilised1968
SL 802Modulation Collimator DetectorSun Pointing1970
SL 804Bragg Crystal SpectrometerSun Pointing1970
SL 812Survey of Norma X-1 & Cen X-3Star Pointing1971
SL 901Bragg Crystal SpectrometerSun & Sco X-1 Pointing1970
SL 904Background SurveySun Pointing1970
SL 972Large Area Sky SurveySpin Stabilised1970
SL 1002Lunar occultation of GX3+1Sun & Sco X-1 Pointing1971
SL 1010Low energy surveySun Pointing1973
SL 1011Modulation Collimator Cir X-1 & Cen X-3Star Pointing1973
SL 1101Bragg Crystal SpectrometerSun Pointing1971
SL 1105Low energy mapping of VelaMagnetic & Moon Pointing1975
SL 1112Low energy interstellar gas abundanceStar pointing1975
SL 1202Lunar occultation of GX5-1Sun pointing1972
SL 1206Bragg Crystal SpectrometerSun pointing1973
SL 1304Lunar occultation of Crab NebulaSun pointing1974
SL 1306Very large area mapping of Cyg X-1Sun pointing1976
SL 1611Dust Halo 2-D imaging (cancelled)Inertial Platform1978

ESA Payloads:

S26X-ray SpectroscopyUnstabilised1967
S41Bragg Crystal SpectrometerSun pointing1967
S55Bragg Crystal SpectrometerSun & Sco X-1 pointing1971
S69Bragg Crystal SpectrometerSun pointing1970
S89Bragg Crystal SpectrometerSun pointing1972

NASA Payloads

Astrobee-FImaging X-ray Telescope (Cygnus Loop)3 axis stabilised1977
Astrobee-FImaging X-ray Telescope (Puppis A + Crab + IC433)3 axis stabilised1978
25.040 A’bee-FWide Field Ultrasoft X-ray Camera3 axis stabilised1981
21.069 BB VcWide Field Ultrasoft X-ray Camera3 axis stabilised1982
21.070 BB VcWide Field Ultrasoft X-ray Camera3 axis stabilised1985
36.162 BB IXJ-PEX High Resolution EUV Spectrometer3 axis stabilised2000
36.195 BB IXJ-PEX High Resolution EUV Spectrometer3 axis stabilised2001

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