A year of special events to celebrate 50 years since the UK became the world’s third space-faring nation has been launched.
On 26 April 1962, the UK followed the US and the USSR into space with the launch of Ariel 1, a satellite built by Nasa in collaboration with the UK’s Science and Engineering Research Council.
Exactly half a century on, the UK Space Agency celebrated this landmark event with two days of talks and presentations at the Science Museum in London.
Ariel 1 was launched from Cape Canaveral aboard a Thor-Delta rocket carrying apparatus to study solar radiation and the intricacies and composition of the Earth’s ionosphere. It remained in orbit until 24 April 1976.
Dr Jon Agar, of UCL’s Science and Technology Studies department, said: “Ariel 1 is an important part of space exploration history because it was the first international satellite, a US-UK scientific collaboration that was a milestone in international scientific cooperation.
“In 1958 the Americans had offered other countries free rides into space for scientific projects and the UK took up this offer. The rocket and satellite casing were American and the launch was from Florida – but the experiments were British and the tracking of the satellite was from British and American facilities.”
The project proved a huge success, paving the way for five further Ariel missions and laying down the groundwork for British involvement in several other major projects including the Giotto Probe, which passed through the tail of Halley’s Comet in 1986, and the Cassini-Huygens satellite that was launched in 1997 to study Saturn and its moon Titan.
Conference delegates also heard details of several ambitious projects planned for the future such as BepiColombo, a satellite designed to explore Mercury scheduled for launch in 2015, and Gaia, a giant billion-pixel camera designed for the detailed mapping of the Milky Way and its surrounding galaxies, which will be launched next year.
It was announced during the event that UK company Astrium has been selected by the European Space Agency as the prime contractor for the upcoming Solar Orbiter mission. The contract was signed on the anniversary of the Ariel 1 launch and is worth €300m, one of the largest ever signed between the ESA Science Programme and a UK company. The signature marks the start of the development and construction phase of the Solar Orbiter, which will perform close-up observations of the Sun following its launch in 2017.
The UK space industry is one of a handful of sectors reporting growth during the recent recession and currently contributes £7.5bn annually to the country’s economy.
Dr David Williams, chief executive at the UK Space Agency, said: “There has never been a more exciting time to be involved in the UK space sector. Building on a legacy of 50 years of excellence, UK businesses and institutions are currently involved in some of the most advanced and innovative space projects. Even in the short time that the UK Space Agency has been in operation we have had some huge successes and we hope to sustain this for the next half century and beyond.”
An exhibit on the Ariel programme is currently on display in the Science Museum’s Exploring Space gallery.