Suborbital launch used to be a sleepy field that rarely attracted much public attention. Let’s face it, atmospheric research and student experiments are not front-page news. Sounding rockets don’t have the majesty and power of a Falcon 9 or Atlas V.
In recent years, exciting new entrants in the field and widespread streaming of launches have made suborbital flights exciting. Last year saw important suborbital flight tests by SpaceX, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic and Skyrora that garnered worldwide interest.
Last year was a busy one for suborbital flights as Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic conducted a combined four flights of their crewed suborbital vehicles. Despite hopes to the contrary, neither company flew paying tourists on their spaceships.
There were also 26 sounding rocket launches that carried scientific experiments and technology payloads above the atmosphere. The year saw:
Japanese startup Interstellar Technologies conduct a successful launch of its Momo commercial sounding rocket;
Texas-based Exos Aerospace continue to struggle with its reusable SARGE booster; and,
the first suborbital launch ever achieved by college students.
Throughout the Space Age, suborbital flight has been the least exciting segment of the launch market. Operating in the shadow of their much larger orbital cousins, sounding rockets carrying scientific instruments, microgravity experiments and technology demonstrations have flown to the fringes of space with little fanfare or media attention.
The suborbital sector has become much more dynamic in recent years now that billionaires have started spending money in it. Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic both made significant progress last year in testing New Shepard and SpaceShipTwo, respectively. Their achievements have raised the real possibility of suborbital space tourism flights in 2019. (I know. Promises, promises…. But, this year they might finally really do it. I think.)
PASADENA, Calif. (NASA PR) — In the early hours of Sept. 7, NASA broke a world record.
Less than 2 minutes after the launch of a 58-foot-tall (17.7-meter) Black Brant IX sounding rocket, a payload separated and began its dive back through Earth’s atmosphere. When onboard sensors determined the payload had reached the appropriate height and Mach number (38 kilometers altitude, Mach 1.8), the payload deployed a parachute. Within four-tenths of a second, the 180-pound parachute billowed out from being a solid cylinder to being fully inflated.
WALLOPS ISLAND, Va. (NASA PR) — On Friday, September 7, at 9:30 a.m., a parachute test for a future mission to Mars successfully launched on a NASA Black Brant IX suborbital sounding rocket from Wallops Flight Facility. The rocket carried the Advanced Supersonic Parachute Inflation Research Experiment (ASPIRE) from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.
The payload is a bullet-nosed, cylindrical structure holding a supersonic parachute, the parachute’s deployment mechanism, and the test’s high-definition instrumentation, including cameras, to record data.
The payload descended by parachute and splashed-down in the Atlantic Ocean 28 miles from Wallops Island. The parachute was successfully recovered and returned to Wallops for data retrieval and inspection.
The world’s launch providers were extremely busy in the first half of 2018, with China and the United States battling for the lead.
There with 55 orbital launches through the end of June, which amounted to a launch every 3.29 days or 79 hours. The total is more than half the 90 launches attempted in 2017. With approximately 42 missions scheduled for the last six months of the year, the total could reach 97. (more…)
WALLOPS ISLAND, Va. (NASA PR) — The launch of a Black Brant IX sounding rocket carrying the Advanced Supersonic Parachute Inflation Research Experiment or ASPIRE was successfully conducted at 12:19 p.m. EDT, March 31, 2018, from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.
The next ASPIRE test at Wallops is currently scheduled for later this summer.
ASPIRE is managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, with support from NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, and Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, California, for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.
NASA’s Sounding Rocket Program is based at Wallops. Orbital ATK in Dulles, Virginia, provides mission planning, engineering services and field operations through the NASA Sounding Rocket Operations Contract. NASA’s Heliophysics Division in Washington manages the sounding rocket program for the agency.
The world’s launch providers have been extremely busy in the first quarter of 2018, with 31 orbital launches thus far. This is more than one third of the 90 launches conducted last year.
China leads the pack with 10 successful launches. The United States is close behind with a total of nine launches with one failure. The tenth American launch is scheduled for Monday afternoon from Florida.
SpaceX had a banner year in 2017, launching a record 18 times and helping to propel the United States to the top of the global launch table with a perfect 29-0 record. The U.S. total made up 32.2 percent of 90 orbital launches worldwide, which was an increase over the 85 flights conducted in 2016.
The 29 American launches were a leap of seven over the 22 flights conducted the previous year. This is the highest number of American orbital launches since the 31 flights undertaken in 1999. However, that year the nation’s launch providers suffered four failures whereas they were perfect in 2017.
WALLOPS ISLAND, Va. (NASA PR) — A NASA Black Brant IX sounding rocket carrying a parachute test platform was successfully launched at 6:45 a.m. EST, October 4, from the agency’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.
The 58-foot tall rocket carried the Advanced Supersonic Parachute Inflation Research Experiment (ASPIRE) from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. The mission is to evaluate the performance of the ASPIRE payload, which is designed to test parachute systems in a low-density, supersonic environment.
The flight was conducted through NASA’s Space Mission Directorate.
The payload flew to an altitude of approximately 31.62 miles and then landed in the Atlantic Ocean. The payload is being recovered for data retrieval and inspection.
NASA’s Sounding Rocket Program is conducted at the agency’s Wallops Flight Facility. Orbital ATK provides mission planning, engineering services and field operations through the NASA Sounding Rocket Operations Contract. NASA’s Heliophysics Division manages the sounding-rocket program for the agency.
The next launch currently scheduled from Wallops is Orbital ATK’s Antares rocket carrying the Cygnus spacecraft with supplies and experiments to the International Space Station. Antares is scheduled for launch no earlier than November 10.
WALLOPS ISLAND, Va. (NASA PR) — Mastering the intricacies of controlling matter at the nanoscale level is part of a revolutionary quest to apply nanotechnology to benefit industrial processes. A key element of that technology is the use of carbon nanotubes.
Carbon nanotubes are small hollow tubes with diameters of 0.7 to 50 nanometers and lengths generally in the tens of microns. While ultra-small, carbon nanotubes offer big-time attributes.
WALLOPS ISLAND, Va. (NASA PR) — New rocket and spacecraft technology can be tested on the ground, such as in labs. However, in some cases a new technology needs to be flight tested to see how it performs in the “real-world” environment.
A NASA sounding rocket launch from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia on May 16 will provide the flight testing needed for 24 experiments and new technologies.
WALLOPS ISLAND, Virg. (NASA PR) — NASA will test two space technology development projects during the flight of a Black Brant IX suborbital sounding rocket at 5:45 a.m. EDT, July 7, from the agency’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.
The launch window for the 54-foot tall rocket runs until 8 a.m. The backup launch days are July 8 – 10.