UK in Space: Ariel 1
An American model of the first British satellite, Ariel 1. Credit: Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

UK in Space: Ariel 1

26/04/2022Written by Guest Blog

Celebrating Ariel 1, sixty years on from the launch of Britain’s first satellite and a look ahead at what's next for British spaceflight.

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It has been exactly sixty years since the first British-operated satellite, Ariel 1, was launched into orbit. With the launch of Ariel 1, Britain became just the third nation to operate an earth orbiting satellite. Whilst this was undoubtedly a crucial milestone in British space exploration, the construction of seven proposed spaceports across Britain promises to trump this initial achievement. Let’s take a look back at Ariel 1, and what’s next for British spaceflight.  

An International Project

An International Project
Sputnik 1, a full-scale model at the National Space Centre.
An International Project
Jupiter-C is launched in 1958, carrying the American satellite, Explorer 1. Credit: NASA

On 26 April 1962, Ariel 1 was launched into orbit, carrying six British experiments with the purpose of studying solar radiation. Consequentially, Britain became the third nation to operate a satellite, following the Soviet Union and the United States, who had burst onto the scene a few years earlier with Sputnik 1 and Explorer 1, respectively. 

So, was it a brilliant bit of British ingenuity, beating most of the other contemporary world powers into space? Not quite… well, sort of.  

When it came to getting Ariel 1 into space, Britain very much piggy-backed off the United States. Ariel 1, whilst being correctly described as the first British-operated satellite, is perhaps better described as the world’s first internationally conceived and executed satellite. At the time of Ariel 1’s launch, the UK did not possess the technological ability to send a satellite into orbit. Therefore, in 1960, an agreement was reached, between the United States and the UK, that America would help Britain send its first satellite into orbit. 

A Product of the Cold War

A Product of the Cold War
American President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline visit Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip as a show of international cooperation. Credit: National Parks Gallery

Consequentially, Ariel 1, was launched aboard the American Thor-Delta rocket (whose cousin, the Thor-Able, can be found in the National Space Centre’s Rocket Tower), from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The satellite, itself, was designed and built by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre. Though, of course, the fact that the satellite was operated by Britain and contained British experiments, allows us Brits to claim it as our own. It might seem weird that this perceived British achievement was all riding on the coat tails of Uncle Sam, but this was all pretty routine stuff for the Cold War. During the Cold War, between Russia and the US, the trade of technology, as well as weapons, resources, and money were all key methods of the two competing superpowers maintaining their respective spheres of influence. 

So, was Ariel 1 a genuine British achievement, or an American-led project draped in a Union Jack flag? That’s for you to decide, but we think this type of international cooperation should be celebrated and encouraged, nevertheless. 

Shakespearean Inspiration

Shakespearean Inspiration
A painting by John White Abbott, titled Prospero Commanding Ariel, depicting the spirit and his master. Credit: Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection
Shakespearean Inspiration
The glowing sky in the aftermath of the Starfish Prime detonation viewed from a surveillance aircraft. Credit: US Govt. Defense Threat Reduction Agency

Now we’ve got the Cold War politics out of the way, let’s talk about the fun stuff! Did you know that Ariel 1 was named after a fictional fairy who lived on a magical island? Ariel 1 owes its name to Harold Macmillan, the Conservative Prime Minister at the time, who named the satellite after the Shakespearean character Ariel. In Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Ariel is a spirit who is trapped on an island, ruled over by the magician Prospero. Ariel is Prospero’s eyes and ears in The Tempest – a fitting description for a satellite. Eventually, after Ariel helps two of the main characters of The Tempest, Ferdinand and Miranda, fall in love, he is freed from the island.

The real Ariel 1, however, does not have such a happy ending. On 9 July 1962, the first British satellite was destroyed by a gigantic nuclear fireball – Starfish Prime. Starfish Prime was an American high-altitude nuclear test, where a nuclear warhead was detonated in outer space – in order to measure the effectivity of the weapon. Starfish Prime damaged the solar panels on Ariel 1, rendering it useless. Furthermore, the explosion also fried the timer that told Ariel 1 when to come back to Earth. Hence, instead of returning to us a year after its launch, the satellite remained in space for over a decade and de-orbited in 1976.

Beyond Ariel 1

Beyond Ariel 1
Model of Prospero on display at the National Space Centre. Credit: National Space Centre
Beyond Ariel 1
An awe-inspiring concept image, depicting what British spaceports could look like. Credit: Lockheed Martin

Ariel 1 was not Britain’s last foray into space. Ariel 1 was one of six satellites in the Ariel programme. Soon after the launch of the Ariel programme, the magician Prospero got his own satellite, the Prospero X-3. Prospero X-3 became the first British satellite, to be launched by a British rocket – Black Arrow – in 1971. Recently, Britain has taken its next greatest steps towards becoming a leading figure in the spaceflight industry, with the planned construction of seven spaceports across the country.  

This is all part of the British Government’s aim to capture 10% of spaceflight market by 2030. These spaceports will hope to provide jobs and a post-Brexit economic boost, by allowing us to launch our own satellites and potentially allowing us to dabble in the burgeoning industry of space tourism further down the line! The Government hopes to launch the first satellite from a British spaceport this year – sixty years on from Britain’s first spaceflight milestone. In 2021, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps stated that the Government’s aim was for Britain to become “…the first country to launch into orbit from Europe”. 

Altogether, whilst today we look back on sixty years of British space travel, we should also look forward to a bright future on the horizon. 

About the author: Cameron Beaver is a Space Communications Presenter at the National Space Centre.