Black Knight (rocket)

Black Knight was a British research ballistic missile, originally developed to test and verify the design of a re-entry vehicle for the Blue Streak missile. It was the United Kingdom's first indigenous expendable launch project.

Design work on what would become the Black Knight launch vehicle commenced in 1955, being performed by the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) and British manufacturer Saunders-Roe. Saunders-Roe was the principal manufacturer for the Black Knight at its facility on the Isle of Wight. On 7 September 1958, the first Black Knight was launched at Woomera in Australia. Between 1958 and 1965, a total of 22 launch vehicles were fired, none of which having suffered any major failures.[1] After 22 launches, the Black Knight programme was closed.

The success of the Black Knight as a cheap and successful test vehicle led to many studies being performed into further derivatives of the vehicle, including its adaption to serve as an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) and as a launch vehicle, including one proposal, which was based on the Blue Streak missile and the Black Knight, known as the Black Prince. Technology and experience gained on the Black Knight programme would contribute to the subsequent Black Arrow expendable launch vehicle programme.[2][3]

Black Knight
Black Knight Rocket Edinburgh
Black Knight BK02
FunctionVehicle for re-entry studies
Country of originUnited Kingdom
Height10.2 - 11.6 m
Diameter0.91 m
Mass12,500–14,200 lb
Stages1 - 2
Payload to
800 km
115 kg
Launch history
Launch sitesLA-5, Woomera
Total launches22
First flight7 September 1958
Last flight25 November 1965
First stage - Black Knight
EnginesInitially 4 chamber Gamma 201, later 4 chamber Gamma 301 engine.
Thrustmk201 was 16,400 lbf,
m301 from 17,000 to 21,600 lbf depending on version.
Burn time120-145 seconds depending on version
Second stage (Optional) Cuckoo II
Engines1 Solid
Thrust8,200 lbf
Specific impulse213 seconds
Burn time10 seconds



During the early 1950s, the UK government had identified the need to develop its own series of ballistic missiles due to advances being made in this field, particularly by the Soviet Union and the United States.[4] The ballistic missile was of critical importance to developing a more effective method of nuclear deterrence, replacing the role currently occupied by free-fall nuclear bombs and thus a reliance on ever-more complex, costly and capable aircraft. A British programme to develop such a missile, named Blue Streak, was promptly initiated; however, there were key questions over the then-relatively unknown scenario of what such a vehicle would encounter when attempting re-entry to the atmosphere, there were fears that such a vehicle might simply burn up like a meteor and therefore be unachievable.[4][5]

Black Knight Gamma 201 engine and re-entry head
Gamma 201 engine and re-entry head of the Black Knight rocket

To explore the phenomenon of atmospheric entry, it was decided that a dedicated research programme would be necessary in order to acquire research information that would shape the design of subsequent ballistic vehicles.[4][6] Britain had also never previously developed a ballistic missile before, the field being relatively new and with few participants, thus there was significant value in developing and constructing a research ballistic missile in order to gain experience and data on how to design and build such vehicles, develop launch techniques, and general handling.[7] Thus, in 1955, the Black Knight research vehicle was developed for this purpose.[8][9]

In 1955, due to its close relationship with the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE), the British government awarded a contract to British manufacturer Saunders-Roe to produce the Black Knight.[10] This contract involved a complete package for the design, development, manufacturing and testing of the vehicle, its flight control system, instrumentation, and supporting infrastructure for its operation.[11]

Black Knight tail
Rear of a Black Knight rocket, note the engine nozzles and aerodynamic fins

According to author C.N Hill, the Black Knight programme ultimately fulfilled its prime objective of gathering information on rocket systems.[12] Amongst applicable fields for the accumulated data included a greater understanding of the physics involved in re-entry vehicles, which had military value due to this scope including ballistic missiles and missile defense. Specifically, it influenced the development of the British-built Blue Streak missile programme, while generally benefitting scientific understanding in both the United Kingdom and the United States.[12][13]

Further development and derivatives

The Black Knight was regarded as being a successful programme, having produced a relatively low cost and reliable rocket.[1] While the Blue Streak missile had by this point been recognised as being too costly to serve as a competitive launcher in the face of international competition, the Black Knight was viewed as having the potential to be more cost-effective in this regard.[14] The Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) had been encouraged by its performance and were keen to reuse the rocket elsewhere.[1]

One of more radical ideas for reusing the Black Knight was voiced by Armstrong-Siddeley, who suggested that the rocket be repurposed as the foundations for an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM). This proposal would have involved greatly increasing the size of the vehicle itself, and the adoption of a substantially more powerful rocket engine in place of the Gamma engine.[15]

The RAE performed a multitude of studies on the subject of prospective derivatives of the Black Knight and its Gamma engine. Many of these focused on the possibility of extending the vehicle to operate a launcher for small satellites and proposed the use of liquid hydrogen-fuelled upper stage, which was comparatively expensive to develop while not providing much payload capacity without redesigning of the Black Knight vehicle itself as well.[14] An alternative solution for satellite launches was explored by the RAE, in which solid fuel boosters would have been attached to the Black Knight. This proposal would have involved a basically unmodified Black Knight vehicle being paired with two strap-on boosters along with two further stages in order to be capable of placing a 100 lb payload into a 200-mile-high orbit. While this implementation was found to be simple and low-cost to develop, the payload capacity remained low.[14]

One of the more ambitious proposals for an improved Black Knight involved substantially increasing the diameter of the tank from 36 inches to 54 inches, which had the effect of nearly doubling the rocket's fuel capacity, along with the adoption of a more powerful solid fuel second stage, named Kestrel. This envisioned more powerful Black Knight rocket was to have been used as part of a further set of planned experiments, which had been codenamed 'Crusade'.[14] Upon review, HM Treasury refused provide any funding for further Black Knight projects, and work on an enlarged Black Knight was abandoned in favour of the larger Black Arrow satellite launcher.[1][3]


Black Knight nose cone 1
Nose cone of a Black Knight rocket

The Black Knight was a single stage ballistic missile, complete with a separate nose section.[6] The vehicle was 35 feet long, had a 3-foot diameter, and a fully fuelled weight of 12,800lb. In operation, the Black Knight could attain an altitude of up to 600 miles, and achieve a re-entry velocity of 12,000 feet per second.[16]

The Black Knight was powered by Bristol Siddeley Gamma rocket engines, designed and manufactured by Armstrong-Siddeley at their factory in Ansty, near Coventry. Between 1956 and 1959, the Gamma rocket engines underwent testing at the High Down Rocket Test Site under the direction of Paul Leyton.[17][18] The engine ran on kerosene fuel and high-test peroxide (HTP) oxidiser; Saunders-Roe possessed prior experience of working with this fuel mixture as a result of the firm's work on the Saunders-Roe SR.53 rocket propelled interceptor aircraft.[16]


During 1957, the first test run of the Black Knight rocket was performed at High Down on the Isle of Wight.[16] In September 1958, the second test launch was performed, this being the first to use the dedicated launch facility at the Woomera Test Range, Australia; the majority of Black Knight launches were performed from Woomera, leading to the launchers being constructed in the UK and then transported to Australia.[16][1]

The first two launch vehicles were used as 'proving rounds': launches which lacked any payload in order to test and validate the design of the rocket itself. The third launch of the Black Knight was the first to carry an actual payload in the form of a re-entry vehicle, which was present for the purpose of testing the properties of the re-entry body's chosen design. All the re-entry firings deliberately took place on clear moonless nights, so that the luminous wake of the re-entry body could be observed photographically.

Further firings with different heads showed up some unusual phenomena, and further tests under the code names Gaslight and Dazzle were carried out in conjunction with the United States. A variety of heads were flown in these tests, including a plain copper sphere and a silica sphere. Heads composed of a composite asbestos-based material known as Durestos were also flown, and later tests finalised on a cone-shaped head re-entering pointed-end first, as used on many subsequent missile RVs.

A total of 25 Black Knight launch vehicles were constructed at a cost of just over £40,000 each. A single rocket (BK02) was used for ground testing. One (BK11) was expended as part of the European Launcher Development Organisation (ELDO) initiative as an investigation of range facilities. The majority, 21, were fired as part of re-entry experiments; if they had been used as launch vehicles for satellites, the majority of these firing would have successfully attained orbit.[1] The remaining two rockets (BK02 and BK22) were preserved and are now kept on static display in museums in Edinburgh and Liverpool.

All launches of the Black Knight were successful and there were no major failures experienced during any.[1] Authors Robin Paine and Roger Syms summarised this achievement as: "Altogether, 22 successful launches were made without a single failure - a remarkable record without parallel in ballistics rocket development.[16]


Australia - Woomera Missile Park - panoramio
A Black Knight rocket on static display

The Black Knight BK02 rocket is on display at the Royal Museum Connect Gallery in Edinburgh. It is nearly 11 m high and stretches up for three floors.[19] The Black Knight BK22 rocket is on display at the World Museum in Liverpool. It is suspended from the ceiling near the Planetarium, there are other Black Knight components on display nearby.[20]

See also



  1. ^ a b c d e f g Hill 2001, p. 188.
  2. ^ Hill 2001, pp. 188-189.
  3. ^ a b Laycock and Laycock 2005, p. 52.
  4. ^ a b c Hill 2001, p. 249.
  5. ^ Laycock and Laycock 2005, pp. 51-52.
  6. ^ a b Twigge 1993, p. 245.
  7. ^ Hill 2001, p. 251.
  8. ^ Hill 2001, p. 22.
  9. ^ Massie and Robins 1986, p. 226.
  10. ^ Paine and Syms 2012, p. 69.
  11. ^ Paine and Syms 2012, pp. 69-70.
  12. ^ a b Hill 2001, p. 13.
  13. ^ Stocker 2004, p. 74.
  14. ^ a b c d Hill 2001, p. 189.
  15. ^ Hill 2001, pp. 209-210.
  16. ^ a b c d e Paine and Syms 2012, p. 70.
  17. ^ "Into the space age at The Needles New Battery". National Trust. Archived from the original on 2014-10-06.
  18. ^ Leyton, Julian. "Obituary: Paul Leyton." The Independent 8 December 1998.
  19. ^ "National Museums Scotland". National Museums Scotland. Archived from the original on 2013-04-01.
  20. ^ Hill 2001, p. 277.


  • Hill, C.N. "A Vertical Empire: The History of the UK Rocket and Space Programme, 1950–1971." World Scientific, 2001. ISBN 1-78326-145-5.
  • Laycock, Stuart and Philip Laycock. "Unexpected Britain." Amberley Publishing Limited, 2014. ISBN 1-44563-284-5.
  • Massie, Harri and M. O. Robins. "History of British Space Science." Cambridge University Press, 1986. ISBN 0-52130-783-X.
  • Paine, Robin and Roger Syms. "On a Cushion of Air." Robin Paine, 2012. ISBN 0-95689-780-0.
  • Stocker, Jeremy. "Britain and Ballistic Missile Defence, 1942-2002." Routledge, 2004. ISBN 1-13576-582-0.
  • Twigge, Stephen Robert. "The Early Development of Guided Weapons in the United Kingdom, 1940-1960." Taylor & Francis, 1993. ISBN 3-71865-297-8.

External links

Black Arrow

Black Arrow, officially capitalised BLACK ARROW, was a British satellite carrier rocket. Developed during the 1960s, it was used for four launches between 1969 and 1971. Its final flight was the first and only successful orbital launch to be conducted by the United Kingdom, and placed the Prospero satellite into low Earth orbit.Black Arrow originated from studies by the Royal Aircraft Establishment for carrier rockets based on the Black Knight rocket, with the project being authorised in 1964. It was initially developed by Saunders-Roe, and later Westland Aircraft as the result of a merger.

Black Arrow was a three-stage rocket, fuelled by RP-1 paraffin (kerosene) and high test peroxide, a concentrated form of hydrogen peroxide (85% hydrogen peroxide + 15% water). It was retired after only four launches in favour of using American Scout rockets, which the Ministry of Defence calculated to be cheaper than maintaining the Black Arrow programme.

Black Knight satellite conspiracy theory

The Black Knight satellite conspiracy theory claims that there is a spacecraft in near-polar orbit of the Earth that is of extraterrestrial origin, and that NASA is engaged in a cover-up regarding its existence and origin. This conspiracy theory combines several unrelated stories into one narrative.A photo taken during the STS-88 mission claimed by some to show the Black Knight satellite is catalogued by NASA as a photo of space debris, and space journalist James Oberg considers it probable the debris is a thermal blanket confirmed as lost during the mission.

Black Prince (rocket)

Black Prince was a proposed British-led satellite expendable launch system. It would have made heavy use of the preceding Blue Streak missile and the Black Knight test rocket development programmes, as well as some new elements, to produce a British-built launcher capable of deploying medium-sized payloads into orbit. Popularly known as the Black Prince due to its assigned rainbow code, in official documentation, the platform was referred to as the Blue Streak Satellite Launch Vehicle (BSSLV).

The Black Prince originated from various ballistic missile programmes that were being conducted by the United Kingdom during the 1950s. As envisioned, it was to have been a multistage rocket, the first stage being the Blue Streak and the second stage being the Black Knight. This would have been mated to a variety of different interchangeable third stages, differing based upon the individual intended mission profile. According to performance projections, the Black Prince would have been capable of delivering a 960 kg (2,117 lb) payload to a 740 km (400 nmi) orbit.

The Black Prince gained several supporters, including official government backing following the termination of military involvement in the Blue Stream programme during early 1960. It was seen as a viable means of reusing existing development work, but one that would still involve significant costs. The British government promoted the concept to other potential partners across Europe and the Commonwealth of Nations, however it became clear that the necessary backing would not be forthcoming. Work on the Black Prince launcher came to an effective halt shortly after the formation of the European Launcher Development Organisation (ELDO) working group and a government decision to proceed with British participation in the multinational Europa launcher programme instead. During the late 1960s, it was proposed that elements of the Black Knight could be combined with the later Black Arrow launcher.

British space programme

The British space programme is the UK government's work to develop British space capabilities. The objectives of the current civil programme are to "win sustainable economic growth, secure new scientific knowledge and provide benefits to all citizens."The first official British space programme began in 1952. In 1959, the first satellite programme was started, with the Ariel series of British satellites, built in the United States and the UK and launched using American rockets. The first British satellite, Ariel 1, was launched in 1962.

The British space programme has always emphasized unmanned space research and commercial initiatives. It has never been government policy to create a British astronaut corps. The British government did not provide funding for the International Space Station until 2011.During the 1960s and 1970s, a number of efforts were made to develop a British satellite launch capability. A British rocket named Black Arrow did succeed in placing a single British satellite, Prospero, into orbit from a launch site in Australia in 1971. Prospero remains the only British satellite to be put into orbit using a British vehicle.

The British National Space Centre was established in 1985 to co-ordinate British government agencies and other interested bodies in the promotion of British participation in the international market for satellite launches, satellite construction and other space endeavours.

In 2010, many of the various separate sources of space-related funding were combined and allocated to the Centre's replacement, the UK Space Agency. Among other projects, the agency is funding a single-stage-to-orbit spaceplane concept called Skylon.

Commonwealth Hill Station

Commonwealth Hill Station more commonly known as Commonwealth Hill is a pastoral lease currently operating as a sheep station.

Commonwealth Hill is located about 96 kilometres (60 mi) north north west of Tarcoola and 120 kilometres (75 mi) south west of Coober Pedy in the state of South Australia.

The property occupies an area of approximately 10,000 square kilometres (3,861 sq mi) or one million hectares, making it the second largest sheep station in Australia, after Rawlinna Station. It is currently owned by the Jumbuck Pastoral Company.

The land on which the station is situated is described as a flat sandy plain on the north western margin of the Gawler Craton covered with sand sheets and dunefields. Low mulga woodlands and tall myall shrublands over perennial grasses dominate with occasional salt lakes and lunette systems.In 1947 the station was enjoying an excellent season after good rains produced an abundance of fresh green feed for stock during the summer. Unfortunately the area was also rife with rumours that the Woomera Test Range was to be expanded and that stations including Commonwealth Hill, Bulgunnia, Roxby Downs and Andamooka would lose some of land which in turn would reduce their wool clip. The rumours were true and the station lies within the Woomera Test Range Area. Byron MacLachlan, the leaseholder of Commonwealth Hill in 1947, along with a consortium of pastoralists and lawyers established a working agreement to ensure the continuation of pastoral activity that would not interfere with the long range weapons project.

In 1956 before the trials of the Black Knight Rocket commenced at Woomera safety risks to pastoralists were identified as a key concern. In 1957 the minister of Supply, Howard Beale spoke with the graziers who could be affected by the trials and announced that the Commonwealth government would pay for the installation of blast-proof shelters.An iron ore exploration company, Apollo Minerals, was given permission in 2011 by the Defence Department to start work on its prospect in the area following a Federal Government review on mining in the former missile testing area.In 2013, the land occupied by the pastoral lease was declared by the Government of South Australia under the Geographical Names Act 1991 as a locality with the name “Commonwealth Hill.”

East Cowes

East Cowes is a town and civil parish to the north of the Isle of Wight, on the east bank of the River Medina next to its neighbour on the west bank, Cowes.

The two towns are connected by the Cowes Floating Bridge, a chain ferry operated by the Isle of Wight Council.

East Cowes is the site of Norris Castle, and Osborne House, the former summer residence of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. The Prince had a major influence on the architecture of the area, for example on the building of St Mildred's Church in nearby Whippingham, which features distinctive turrets imitating those found on a German castle.

RAAF Woomera Range Complex

The RAAF Woomera Range Complex (WRC) is a major Australian military and civil aerospace facility and operation located in South Australia, approximately 450 kilometres (280 mi) north-west of Adelaide. The WRC is operated by the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), a division of the Australian Defence Force (ADF). The complex includes both the land area of 122,188 square kilometres (47,177 sq mi) and the airspace that is restricted and controlled by the RAAF for safety and security. The WRC is a highly specialised ADF test and evaluation capability operated by the RAAF for the purposes of testing defence materiel.The word woomera is an Australian indigenous word of the Dharug language of the Eora people of the Sydney basin; a woomera is a wooden spear-throwing device. Woomera was adopted initially as an appropriate name for the settlement of Woomera, also called Woomera Village, located within the complex.

The complex has been variously known as the Anglo-Australian Long Range Weapons Establishment and then the Woomera Rocket Range; the RAAF Woomera Test Range and in 2013, the facility was reorganised and renamed to the RAAF Woomera Range Complex (WRC). The ground area of the WRC is defined by the Woomera Prohibited Area (WPA) and includes the Nurrungar Test Area (NTA); with a land area of 122,188 square kilometres (47,177 sq mi), the WPA is described by the RAAF as the largest land-based test range in the western world. The Woomera Prohibited Area Coordination Office (WPACO) coordinates daily operation of the complex which comprises a mix of South Australian crown land and is covered by pastoral leases and mining tenements granted by the Government of South Australia. The Woomera Prohibited Area Advisory Board monitors the operations of the WPA and the WPACO. The airspace above the WPA is called the Woomera Restricted Airspace (WRX) and is controlled by the RAAF for safety and security reasons during the conduct of some activities on the complex together with the support of Airservices Australia.

The complex also contains the RAAF Base Woomera, or the RAAF Woomera Airfield, that describes the dual-runway military airfield located 3 nautical miles (5.6 km; 3.5 mi) north of the settlement of the Woomera Village. The airfield has been in military operation since a RAF Dakota landed at Woomera on 19 June 1947.

Reid and Sigrist

Reid and Sigrist was an English engineering company based at New Malden in Surrey. It later acquired sites at Desford and Braunstone in Leicestershire. Initially it developed and manufactured aircraft instrumentation and pilot selection aids but later diversified into flying training and aircraft design. During World War II the company was part of the Civilian Repair Organisation repairing, rebuilding and converting warplanes at the Desford site. Post-war it continued to manufacture aviation instruments and guidance systems but also diversified further to produce cameras and optical instruments. In 1954 the company was purchased and taken-over by the Decca Record Company.

Roy Dommett

Roy Leonard Dommett (25 June 1933 – 2 November 2015) was a British engineer and rocket scientist, and the United Kingdom's Chief Missile Scientist, who for many years led the United Kingdom's research and development of both ballistic missiles and space rockets for the delivery of satellites into orbit. In retirement he lived in Hampshire.


Saunders-Roe Limited, also known as Saro, was a British aero- and marine-engineering company based at Columbine Works, East Cowes, Isle of Wight.

Cold War military projects of the United Kingdom
air-to-air missiles
air-to-surface missiles
surface-to-air missiles
surface-to-surface missiles
satellite launch vehicles
nuclear bombs
nuclear warheads


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