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Sklark Rocket Launches

The Skylark Rocket during a launch [Pictures: EADS Space].

Skylark Gets Set for Final Launch

University of Leicester played key role in historic space programme (details at end of release).

Skylark, one of the World’s longest running space programmes, will lift-off for the final time in a launch window starting on Saturday, April 30th. The launch of the 441st Skylark sounding rocket marks the end of 50 years of outstanding scientific research that has included investigations into atmospheric conditions, X-ray astronomy, land use and the effects of microgravity.

The Skylark sounding rocket has been a leading British success story since its design in the mid 1950s. The first Skylark was launched from Woomera, Australia, during the International Geophysical Year of 1957. The final Skylark mission, MASER 10, carries a suite of experiments to study the effects of microgravity, including a biological investigation of the protein, actin, and a study of interfacial turbulence in evaporating liquids. MASER 10 will be launched from the Esrange Site, near Kiruna in northern Sweden.

Hugh Whitfield, of Sounding Rocket Services Ltd, which has operated the Skylark programme since 1999, says,

“Skylark is one of the most successful rocket programmes of all time, but this British achievement is largely unknown. We should be immensely proud of the contribution to science that Skylark has made and it is a testament to the skill of British engineers that the programme has lasted nearly half a century.”

Skylark rockets have been launched from Wales, Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Norway, Sardinia, Spain and Sweden. Early experiments ranged from atmospheric studies to X-ray astronomy and research into the ionospheric interactions that cause aurorae. The rockets were popular with young scientific researchers, as it was possible for a PhD student to design a space experiment, launch it on a Skylark vehicle and write up the results in just three years. In recent years research has focused on microgravity experiments led by the German space agency, DLR, and testing equipment for Spacelab and the International Space Station.

The Skylark 7 that will be used for the final launch is a two-stage rocket that can carry a payload weighing 380 kilograms to an altitude of 230 kilometres. The Skylark 7 is powered by a “Goldfinch” boost stage and a “Raven XI” main stage motor.

Skylark was developed by the Royal Aeronautical Establishment, Farnborough, in conjunction with the Rocket Propulsion Establishment, Westcott. The rocket motors, which were filled with a plastic propellant, were produced by Royal Ordnance Bridgewater and Westcott. Initially funded by the UK government, Skylark has been operated on a commercial basis since 1966, first by British Aerospace, then Matra Marconi Space, and finally Sounding Rocket Services Ltd. Although production of motors ended in November 1994, a stockpile has meant that Skylarks have continued to be launched at least once per year ever since.

Sounding Rocket Services now plan to become the European agent for the American built Oriole range of rockets and a supplier of hardware to the German/Brazlian VSB 30 vehicle.


The launch window for MASER 10 opens on April 30, 2005 at 05:00 GMT (07:00 LT) until 13:00 GMT and ends on May 15, 2005 at 05:00 GMT until 13:00 GMT.


Sounding Rocket Services:

Campaign information for MASER 10:

Use links below if reading online...


Alistair Scott (Public Relations), EADS Astrium (Formerly British Aerospace), Mobile: +44(0)7887826264, Tel: +44(0)1438773698, E-mail:

Dave Haslam (Media relations), Moon Mars Working Group, Mobile: +44(0)7890 595 711, E-mail:

Hugh Whitfield, SRS Limited, Address Sounding Rocket Services, Unit 1 Parnall Road, Fishponds, Bristol, BS16 3JQ, Tel: +44 117 965 1818, Mob: 07803 610 099, Fax: +44 117 965 1822, E-mail:

The Skylark Research Rocket and Space Science at Leicester

Emeritus Professor Ken Pounds CBE reflects on his, and Leicester’s, involvement with Skylark

The first Skylark sub-orbital rocket was launched successfully at Woomera in S.Australia in February 1957, less than 2 years after its development was approved by the UK Treasury. After 3 test flights the first Skylark carrying a scientific payload flew on 13 November 1957. I was then a research student at UCL and played a minor role in building one of the experiments, which involved ejecting grenades from the rocket as it rose through the atmosphere, each flash and sound being picked up on the ground, yielding information on the density and temperature profile, and wind speed at high altitudes.

The first Leicester instrument to fly (a collaboration with UCL) was on 8 July 1959, on SL14, obtaining the first direct measurement of the Sun’s X-ray spectrum. Encouraged by that early success a new group was established at Leicester in 1960, with the prime aim of studying the Sun’s X-ray emission and it’s effects on the Earth’s atmosphere. The evolving Skylark rocket gave us a first class platform for those studies, especially when the early spin-stabilised vehicle was replaced with versions capable of locking onto the Sun and then night-time stars. Leicester scientists were active in each phase, providing the payload (with the Culham Laboratory) for the first 3 sun-pointing launches (SL 301,302,303) in 1964, and for the first successful star-pointing vehicle (SL 1011) in April 1973.

Our science programme had by then been extended from solar studies to the exciting new discipline of X-ray astronomy, with Skylark providing us with the opportunity to explore the Southern Sky from Woomera, while US groups used their Aerobee vehicle from the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico to follow up the historic discovery of Scorpius X-1 in June 1962. In such a new field of research every rocket flight had exciting potential for new discoveries, while the short timescale to build and fly each payload made the Skylark programme well-suited to the training of new graduate students.

The great majority of UK Skylark launches were from Woomera, which saw a grand total of 193 launches to the end of the national programme in 1978. 14 other UK Skylark launches took place during the 1970s from Andoya and El Areonosillo, while 56 Skylark were also funded by the emerging European Space Research Organisation (ESRO) between 1965-1972, with Leicester scientists taking part in several launches from Sardinia.

With the availability of dedicated satellites from the late 1960s, Skylark became less and less cost-effective, and UK national funding was ended in 1978. Looking back, this outstanding research rocket can be seen to have played a major part in establishing space science in the UK (and through ESRO, across Europe).

  • Professor Ken Pounds, Department of Physics and Astronomy

[External Link] - Sounding Rocket Services

[External Link] - Campaign information for MASER 10

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