Invented in the 1950s, the Black Brant sounding rocket is now legendary among space science agencies and researchers the world over. Alberta-born designer Albert Fia enabled Bristol Aerospace to become the first industrial-scale rocket manufacturer in Canada.1 The first Black Brant, named after the Arctic bird, was launched in September 1959 from Fort Churchill, Manitoba.
The Black Brant rocket grew out of the Canada's need to study the ionosphere and the aurora borealis, mainly visible in Canada's far north. The northern lights interfere with telecommunications which, even at that time, during the Cold-War period were already an essential tool for ensuring national security.
But why use rockets? With rockets we can access the low ionosphere, between 35 and 300 km above the Earth, a region of the atmosphere that can't be reached by research balloons or satellites. This is where radio waves travel and are subject to interference from aurora borealis. Scientific instruments may be placed aboard the rocket and later recovered thanks to a parachute that brings them safely back to Earth.
Black Brant sounding rockets are still used by CSA and NASA for suborbital research. Both organizations use them to launch instruments to gather information on the upper atmosphere, the Sun, stars and other planets. Specifically, these instruments measure the temperature, pressure, density and chemical composition of the area being studied. In 2000, GEODESIC, a Canadian experiment on the atmosphere's fine plasma structures, was carried out using the Black Brant rocket. That experimental flight recorded scientific data for 17 minutes. The Black Brant is also used to map and monitor ice.
Various models of the rocket have been developed over the decades, and the latest model, the Black Brant XII, is still being mass-produced and marketed by Bristol Aerospace. Its low-cost manufacturing process takes only a few months, making it the most cost-effective of all sounding rockets on the market. The Black Brant is reliable. More than 800 of them have been launched since 1959 to study the upper atmosphere and to carry out experiments in microgravity.
The Black Brant rocket consists of two parts: a solid propellant engine and a payload. The flight time of a sounding rocket is about 20 minutes, enough time to reach microgravity conditions that cannot be replicated on Earth. This artificial weightlessness, caused by the rocket's free fall when its engines flame out, is longer and of better quality than aboard an aircraft in parabolic flight, as the only acting forces are gravity and air resistance—and these are negligible in those moments.
The rocket invented by Mr. Fia almost 50 years ago has evolved over time, adapting to new technologies and new scientific research needs. It will be no surprise if it continues to carry out scientific missions for many years to come!
1. Biographical note: Albert Fia was born in Lethbridge, Alberta, and joined Bristol Aerospace in 1958 after completing studies in engineering. He was the recipient of many awards from his peers. He died in June 2004.