Aerospace & Defence

Retrieving the Prospero

21st July 2021
Alex Lynn

Prospero is the only British satellite put into orbit by a rocket we built ourselves, was launched into orbit by the British rocket ‘Black Arrow’ in 1971. For two years, Prospero – named for the character in the Shakespeare place The Tempest – carried out experiments in order to learn more about the effects of space on orbital communications equipment.

Prospero’s tape recorders stopped working in 1973 and it was officially decommissioned in 1996, however now, Skyrora, a space technology company helping small manufacturers get into orbit, is trying to retrieve the old satellite.

Despite being entirely decommissioned, Skyrora believes that the satellite still has importance for British history. Because of this, the company has already retrieved parts of the ‘Black Arrow’, which tumbled back to Earth in Australia, where it lay untouched in the Outback, until Skyrora decided to find it in 2018. The salvaged piece of the ‘Black Arrow’ is now on display at the Farnborough Air Sciences Trust Museum.

On the 50th anniversary of Prospero’s launch, Skyrora would like to retrieve the satellite as well, creating the ‘Finding Prospero’ project. However, this presents a significant logistical, scientific, and technological challenge: it is far easier to get a satellite into space than it is to get it back down again. And it is quite literally rocket science to get it up there in the first place.

Prospero weighs 66kg and is currently still in orbit, despite by now being entirely useless. In this way, Prospero is a prime example of the growing problem of ‘space junk’, as every year more and more technology in orbit becomes defunct. Getting the Prospero down would be a step in the right direction for reducing the amount of debris we have orbiting the planet.

Volodymyr Levykin, Founder and CEO, Skyrora, said: “By recovering Prospero, we are not only coming together as a space nation and taking responsibility for what we have launched into orbit, but also confirming our commitment to the sustainable use of outer space.”

The chances of getting the Prospero back through the atmosphere entirely intact is very small, naming just one of the challenges it faces as the heat of re-entering the atmosphere is something that Prospero has no protection for. Another challenge is working out precisely where Prospero is going to be – and when – as the satellite ceased communicating with Earth in 2004. Making close enough contact with the satellite to retrieve it, without being able to speak to the satellite, won’t be an easy feat. 

Skyrora hopes that its ‘Space Tug’ orbital transfer vehicle will be able to help in the effort. However, ‘Space Tugs’ are traditionally used to move space hardware from one orbit into another; not for returning defunct junk to Earth. Space debris falling back to Earth also poses a significant risk if its area of re-entry – and thus likely landing site – cannot be accurately predicted.

Despite all these challenges, Skyrora is determined to bring the Propero back down, both as an important British artifact, and to start addressing the issue of space junk.

You can currently spot Prospero on a clear night when it is in pedigree, through binoculars or a telescope, at a magnitude of +6 – so you might want to take a peek before it’s gone!

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