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Rocket start-up Skyrora wants to salvage an iconic UK satellite in space for museum display

The research satellite Prospero is the only British spacecraft to launch on the British-built Black Arrow rocket.
The research satellite Prospero is the only British spacecraft to launch on the British-built Black Arrow rocket. (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons/Geni)

The Scottish rocket start-up Skyrora wants to retrieve the derelict remains of the iconic satellite Prospero, the only British craft ever launched into space on a domestic rocket, and return it to Earth for a museum display. 

Based in Edinburgh, Scotland, Skyrora is currently developing a light kerosene-fueled rocket capable of launching small satellites to low Earth orbit. In 2018, the company spearheaded an initiative that retrieved the remnants of the first stage of the British-built Black Arrow rocket, which launched Prospero in 1971, from an Australian desert and returned it to the United Kingdom. 

The launch of Prospero has a special, although bittersweet, place in British history. The Black Arrow rocket program, a continuation of the U.K.'s missile defense program, shutdown after the successful launch due to cost reasons, leaving Prospero the first — and so far only — British satellite to  launch on a British-built rocket.

Related: Space shuttle rocket booster to be part of astronaut memorial at California museum

A startup eyes British space history 

Skyrora, which sees itself as an heir of Black Arrow's legacy, plans to start offering commercial launches into low Earth orbit from British soil within the next two years using the company's XL rocket.

The firm announced the ambition to retrieve the defunct Prospero at the recent Space Comm Expo exhibition in Farnborough, U.K., with the help of British astronaut Tim Peake, who joined Skyrora's advisory board last year. 

The company admits that retrieving the 50-year-old Prospero satellite, which still orbits at the altitude of about 600 miles (1,000 kilometers), will present significant technical challenges. Skyrora has therefore called on other U.K. companies, government agencies and academic institutions to put forward ideas on how to accomplish the task. 

Alan Thompson, head of government affairs at Skyrora, told Space.com in an interview that the company has already been in touch with several other U.K.-based space firms and expects to introduce a more detailed plan for the mission by October 28, the 50th anniversary of Prospero's launch.

Japan-headquartered Astroscale, which has offices in the U.K., is one of the potential collaborators, according to Thomson. The company is currently preparing to conduct a space junk removal demonstration with their ELSA-d mission, which launched in March of this year.

British astronaut Tim Peake (in the middle) with Skyrora CEO Volodymyr Levykin (second right) and other guests in front of the remnants of the Black Arrow rocket, which launched the Prospero satellite in 1971.

British astronaut Tim Peake (in the middle) with Skyrora CEO  Volodymyr Levykin (second right) and other guests in front of the remnants of the Black Arrow rocket, which launched the Prospero satellite in 1971. (Image credit: Skyrora)

Searching for Prospero 

The 146-lbs. (66-kilogram) Prospero, which studied the effects of the space environment on telecommunication satellites, sent its last signal to the ground in 2004. Since then, its orbit has been slowly decaying as the satellite joined the growing cloud of orbital debris.

Thompson said the project's aim is to ultimately draw attention to the space junk problem, which has intensified in recent years, and propose more sustainable ways of future space operations. 

With the advent of megaconstellations such as Starlink and OneWeb, the orbital regions close to Earth are becoming increasingly cluttered, making operations challenging. 

Multiple companies and space agencies are developing technology to remove defunct satellites from low Earth orbit. These proposals plan to pull the satellites down into Earth's atmosphere for a burn-up. The idea of bringing an intact satellite all the way to the ground, however, is rather new. 

Thomson said the technology developed to bring Prospero home would not be designed for single use only. Recently, scientists started raising concerns about the possible negative effects of a large amount of satellites burning up in the upper layers of Earth’s atmosphere, saying that the particles produced during the burning of the metal satellite parts could affect the planet’s climate in the future. That, Thomson said, might mean that an alternative disposal solution might soon be needed anyway. 

Skyrora, according to Thomson, sees themselves as champions of space sustainability. Although the company's XL rocket runs on kerosene, the fuel it uses is actually made of non-recyclable plastic waste. Skyrora said that in addition to its renewable nature, the fuel produces 45% less greenhouse gas emissions than the fossil fuel-based aviation fuel kerosene. 

Earlier this year, the company received $3.5 million (€3 million) from the European Space Agency (ESA) toward the development of its technology. 

Skyrora has also recently completed trials of the innovative third stage of the XL rocket, the Orbital Transfer Vehicle (OTV), or a space tug. The OTV, which can reignite its engines more than 15 times once in orbit, could play a role in bringing the Prospero satellite to Earth, Skyrora said in a statement. 

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Tereza Pultarova

Tereza is a London-based science and technology journalist, aspiring fiction writer and amateur gymnast. Originally from Prague, the Czech Republic, she spent the first seven years of her career working as a reporter, script-writer and presenter for various TV programmes of the Czech Public Service Television. She later took a career break to pursue further education and added a Master's in Science from the International Space University, France, to her Bachelor's in Journalism and Master's in Cultural Anthropology from Prague's Charles University. She worked as a reporter at the Engineering and Technology magazine, freelanced for a range of publications including Live Science, Space.com, Professional Engineering, Via Satellite and Space News and served as a maternity cover science editor at the European Space Agency.