Into the space age at The Needles New Battery

Black Arrow ready for testing

The Needles New Battery is a small site, further up the headland from the Old Battery. Its two underground rooms tell the fascinating story of British space rockets which were secretly tested here between the 1950s and 70s.

Completed between 1893 and 1895, the New Battery was built after the Old Battery site started to suffer coastal erosion. New technology introduced at the time also needed more space than was available at the Old Battery.

During both world wars the New Battery was put to action and afterwards it was chosen as the test site for a new type of technology.

From 1955 Saunders Roe leased the site and tested the rockets ‘Black Knight’, ‘Black Arrow’ and the satellite ‘Prospero’ here before they were launched in Australia.

Australian launch

The first rocket, known was ‘Black Knight’ was tested in April 1957 at the Highdown site and after further tests, the rockets were taken to Woomera in Australia for launching.

Black Knight was designed to test the effect of re-entry to the earth’s atmosphere on a missile and to develop the design of large liquid fuelled rockets. In all, 22 Black Knight rockets were launched.

From the Black Knight, the Black Arrow, which was designed to put a satellite into orbit, was developed from the late 1960s. In 1971 it was launched from Woomera along with the satellite ‘Prospero’ which was tucked into the nose cone. Sadly, within days of the successful launch, the British Government cancelled the space programme and the final Black Arrow rocket built was given to the Science Museum in London.

Rocket testing at Highdown near the Needles New Battery ©Bruce White
Rocket testing at Highdown near the Needles New Battery
Rocket testing at Highdown near the Needles New Battery ©Bruce White
Plan of the rocket testing site at Highdown
Rocket testing site plan at the Needles
Plan of the rocket testing site at Highdown
BLACK ARROW rocket ready for testing at the Needles
BLACK ARROW rocket ready for testing at the Needles
BLACK ARROW rocket ready for testing at the Needles
Rocket Stage at Highdown
Rocket Stage at Highdown near the Needles
Rocket Stage at Highdown


British Pathé Footage

Filmed in November 1968, this original British Pathé footage shows the testing of the BLACK ARROW rocket at the Highdown testing site near the Needles New Battery. Technicians are shown making final adjustments to the top of the BLACK ARROW second stage rocket and its motor as it stands in its gantry prior to test firing.  Other technicians are seen inside the New Battery building monitoring the controls that will perform the count-down sequence for rocket take-off. Although there's no sound to the film it provides a fascinating insight into the 'secret' rocket testing site near the Needles.


Discover the site for yourself

In the underground rooms of the New Battery, which were the nerve centre of this highly secret operation, there are models of the rockets Black Knight and Black Arrow, and the satellite Prospero. Some of the rooms have been recreated as they would have looked when the top-secret tests were being carried out.


A view out to the Needles and the open sea from the concrete structures of the 1950s and 1960s rocket testing site on the Isle of Wight

To the headland and beyond

The New Battery is at the start of the Needles headland. There are many spectacular cliff-top paths across West High Down to the Tennyson Monument and beyond. Before starting out, wander round to the Needles viewpoint to see the site of the former rocket gantries. There is also an excellent view back to the Needles rocks.

Useful things to know....

  • The New Battery is currently closed however it will be open on the 28 October 2021 for the anniversary of the launch of Prospero satellite 
  • When open, there's no admission charge to the Needles New Battery
  • Access to the rooms is down a short flight of steps.
  • Dogs on leads are welcome

Getting here

From the Needles Old Battery there is a choice of two steep paths both with good views across to Alum Bay and the mainland. By the Old Battery entrance there is a flight of wide steps, alternatively follow the road up and around to the top.

The Needles Breezer Bus stops outside the New Battery. From here it is an easy walk down to the Old Battery.