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The Rocket Vault

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The exhibition shows the development of rocket motors and propellants from Congreve's gunpowder rocket of the early 19th century through to the guided missiles of the cold war and those used in the Falklands and Gulf wars. Former employees are often on hand to give guided tours and answer any technical questions concerning rockets and propellants.

Among the exhibits on show are a rocket engine from a V2 that broke up in midair over Waltham Abbey in 1945, a Wolfhound motor from a Thunderbird anti-aircraft rocket of the cold war era, a Blowpipe ground to air missile from the Falklands war and a set of Skylark research rocket motors that provided valuable scientific information over a period of some fifty years. Also on show is an Exocet motor used by both sides in the Falklands war and a small liquid fuel engine from a Chevaline nuclear missile. Present day missiles include a Starstreak used on top of east London tower blocks during the 2012 Olympic Games and a Rapier motor used on the outer ring of missiles at the same event.

Also on show are examples of the various constituents of propellants used in rocket motors.

Outside is a 36 inch diameter Stonechat, the largest motor that we produced and a flight test vehicle for a Gosling booster for the Thunderbird and Bloodhound missiles.

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Petrel Rocket Launcher

In 1959 the Meteorological Office was authorised to create a High Altitude Research Unit to carry out atmospheric studies up to 50 miles (80km). The first rockets used for the research were the Skua Mk1 to Mk4, built by Bristol Aerojet Ltd in collaboration with RPE Westcott. The Skua's were a tube launched rocket system which could send a 16 lb (7.5 kg) payload to around 86 miles (140 km), with most launches taking place from South Uist in the Hebrides.

In 1967 Bristol Aerojet built Petrel 1 to carry out the above task with the first launch being from South Uist on the 8th June 1967. The payload for the new rocket weighed between 40 and 55 lb. (18 to 25 kg) and was launched to a height of 86miles using the tube launch system from the Skua program.

In 1977 Petrel 2 was brought into service and could carry a payload of 40 lb. (18kg) to a height of 108 miles (175 km), but was also used as a target drone to test anti-missile defence systems. The launcher you see outside on the roundabout is portable and could be used to launch from the deck of an Aircraft Carrier or other naval vessel as well as from land bases such as Woomera in Australia. Since 1979, over 600 successful launches have been carried out in its target role, with many more in its atmospheric role.

The more observant may have noticed that both rockets are named after sea birds, Skua and Petrel, while the small booster rockets used to assist the launch are called Chicks.

Production of the Petrel 2 ended in 2002.

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Stentor Rocket Engine

This liquid fueled rocket engine was designed to power the Blue Steel cruise missile that carried a nuclear warhead 150 miles beyond the range of the V bombers that launched it. In 1954 the Ministry of Supply had stated that it would be excessively dangerous for a V bomber to fly within 50 miles of a target by 1960. Blue Steel entered service in 1962 and 36 operational aircraft were fitted out. It remained in service until 1969 when it was replaced by Polaris as a deterrent.

The Stentor engine was manufactured by Bristol Siddeley and is a two chamber design weighing 747lb. The larger chamber burns for 29 seconds with a thrust of 25,200 lbf at 45,000 ft. The smaller chamber produces a thrust variable from 1,000lbf to 6,200 lbf at 45,000ft. The fuel is kerosene with hydrogen peroxide as the oxidiser along with a silver gauze catalyst. This gave the missile a range of 150 miles with a speed of 2,000 mph.

The small chamber was later used on the Black Knight research rocket and in clusters of up to eight on the Black Arrow satellite launcher. The third stage satellite injection motor can also be seen in the exhibition. This used a unique plastic propellant developed on the site and used mainly in civilian rockets. The project was cancelled just as the first satellite was launched as the government of the day could see no commercial benefits from having satellites in orbit.