The purpose of the Black Knight test rocket was to study the effects when a vehicle re-enters the atmosphere at high speed. Originally, this was to design a re-entry vehicle for the warhead for Blue Streak, but the programme broadened out into a wider research programme, particularly after the cancellation of Blue Streak.
The contract for the vehicle was given to Saunders Roe, based at Cowes on the Isle of Wight, in the middle of 1955. The original motor had four chambers, based on the Gamma motor developed at the Rocket Propulsion Establishment at Westcott, Buckinghamshire. This was designated the Gamma 201. Saunders Roe built a test site at High Down, the subject of another page.
The original design was for a thin walled vehicle with external stringers for strength, but this was abandoned in favour of a thicker walled vehicle with no stringers.
The vehicle was to be fired from the Woomera range in Australia. Having a land range was a great asset, and this combined with some interesting results, led to American interest in the programme. Two joint UK/US/Australian projects ensued: Gaslight and Dazzle, using increasingly sophisticated radars and spectrometers.
The first launch took place in 1958, the last in 1965. Altogether 22 Black Knights were fired. The first two launches (BK01 and BK03) were not used for re-entry tests but to prove the vehicle. Another, BK11, was used for range testing for ELDO.
The vehicle was improved in various ways throughout its career. A second stage was added; a solid fuel Cuckoo motor. Oddly enough, this was designed to fire on the way down rather than the way up, to increase the vehicle's velocity just before re-entry. The Gamma 201 motor was replaced by a more efficient motor, also capable of higher thrust, the Gamma 301. Here the rocket chamber was derived from the small chamber of Bristol Siddeley's Stentor motor for the Blue Steel missile.
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