It's all aboard the Skylark for British rocket's last flight

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The Independent Online

It didn't get to the Moon. It didn't even get into Earth orbit. But it was the most successful British space rocket, and it has been launched for the last time.

It didn't get to the Moon. It didn't even get into Earth orbit. But it was the most successful British space rocket, and it has been launched for the last time.

Hardly anyone outside the scientific community has ever heard of Skylark, designed by British engineers to send experiments far above the Earth, yet it has been shooting upwards for 48 years. The final launch, from the Swedish Space Corporation's Esrange site near Kiruna in the remote north of the country, early yesterday morning, was the 441st.

Since its first blast-off in 1957, Skylark has been the workhorse of British space science. Just over 30ft tall, it is what is known as a sounding rocket, an instrument-carrying sub-orbital vehicle designed to take measurements and perform scientific experiments during its flight. Sounding rockets attain heights typically from 30 to 120 miles above the Earth's surface, the region above the maximum altitude for balloons, and below the minimum for satellites.

Skylark's final mission, known as Maser 10, took five experiments into space to study the effects of microgravity, including a biological investigation of the muscle protein actin, and a study of turbulence in evaporating liquids. While in space, the tests experienced weightlessness allowing scientists to observe the physical processes that occur when gravity is absent.

Although it was delayed for a day after high winds made the launch impossible on Saturday, a spokesman at the Swedish base confirmed it had gone perfectly.

He said: "We had no problem with the weather on this occasion and the launch went smoothly. Skylark appeared to have completed all of its experiments and we are recovering the equipment where it has landed in mountains in the north of Sweden."

Skylark was designed in an age when Britain had a major missile programme of its own and was first used to gather upper-atmosphere information for development of the UK's own intermediate-range ballistic missile, Blue Streak (later cancelled). So what began as essentially a military programme became a successful civil one, a relatively inexpensive but highly efficient way of carrying scientific experiments into sub-orbital space.

In the Fifties and Sixties the rockets were popular with young 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.

First launched from Woomera, Australia - a popular launch pad for British rockets - Skylark rockets have since been launched from Wales, Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Norway and Sweden.

Despite its success, the government ended public funding of the programme in 1977 and since then it has been operated on a commercial basis, first by British Aerospace, then Matra Marconi Space, and finally Sounding Rocket Services Ltd.

"Skylark is one of the most successful rocket programmes of all time, but this British achievement is largely unknown," said Sounding Rocket Services' Hugh Whitfield. "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."

Although production of motors ended in November 1994, a stockpile meant that Skylarks have continued to be launched at least once a year ever since.

In all, a series of 12 versions were produced as part of the programme, which began modestly with the first Skylark capable of lifting 100lb to 95 miles.

The final version, Skylark 12, could carry a 440lb payload to an altitude of 350 miles.

The final rocket was a Skylark 7, which reached 155 miles.

Rocket feats

* 1957: The first Skylark makes maiden launch from Woomera, Australia. It enables researchers to perform in-situ experiments ranging from X-ray astronomy to a study of frogs' eggs

* 1966: Operates commercially, first by British Aerospace and then Matra Marconi Space

* 1977: UK government ends public funding on the premise that scientists would opt to fly their experiments on the pending American space shuttle. Programme continues commercially.

* 1999: A Bristol-based company, Sounding Rocket Services, takes over operation of its launches