This week in 1957: The Skylark project

With the government last week announcing a review of space exploration, this article serves as a timely reminder that in the early days of the space race we weren’t far behind the US and Russia.


With the government last week announcing a review of space exploration, this article, reporting on the birth of one of the UK’s longest-running rocketry programmes serves as a timely reminder that in the early days of the space race we weren’t far behind the US and Russia.

Over its 50-year lifetime the Skylark programme, which ran until a few years ago, launched hundreds of rockets into the Earth’s upper atmosphere and gave countless engineers the opportunity to cut their teeth in the aerospace industry.

Reporting on the launch of the first ‘Skylark’ rocket from Woomera in Australia in 1957, the article explains how the scientists involved hoped to advance understanding of the upper reaches of the Earth’s atmosphere through a range of studies that would use sound ranging techniques to measure the temperature, pressure and density of the atmosphere.

‘The speed of sound in the air is proportional to the square root of the air temperature, so that from the observed variation with the height of the speed of sound that of the temperature may be obtained,’ wrote The Engineer. ‘Grenades will be ejected from the rocket at regular intervals to explode after about two seconds. The arrival of the sound pulse from each explosion will be timed at an array of ground-based microphones. At the same time, the flash from the explosion will be observed on several wide-angle cameras, also on the ground.

‘From analysis of the data,’ continued the article, ‘it is possible to obtain not only the required variation with height of the speed of sound, but also the deviation of the down-ward moving soundwaves by the winds at different heights.’

The article adds that it was hoped the project would help improve understanding of the passage of radio signals through the ionosphere.

After government funding for the experiments dried up in 1977, the project was taken over first by British Aerospace, then Matra Marconi Space, and finally Bristol’s Sounding Rocket Services. The 441st and final skylark was launched from a base in Sweden in 2005.