Suborbital Spaceflight by the Numbers

New Shepard launches on its 21st flight of the program on June 4, 2022. (Credit: Blue Origin)

Part II of II

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The first half of 2022 was a busy period in suborbital space with 23 launches conducted that did not involve tests of ballistic missiles or defensive systems. Twelve people flew above the Karman line, new boosters and space technologies were tested, and the first commercial suborbital launch was conducted from Australia. And some science was done.

We covered the above mentioned flights in depth in a story published on Tuesday. In this piece we’ll look a broader look at who launched what, when, where, why and on what.

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A Busy Six Months as Suborbital Spaceflight Comes Into its Own

New Shepard lands after the NS-21 flight. (Credit: Blue Origin webcast)

Part I of II

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

For decades, the suborbital launch sector was largely a backwater. Militaries tested ballistic missiles, scientists conducted experiments, and engineers tested new technologies. A sounding rocket is small potatoes compared with orbital rocket launches and the glamor of human spaceflight. Few people paid much attention.

All that has changed in recent years as Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin and their billionaire owners — Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos — started launching themselves and others on suborbital joyrides. Startups have been conducting suborbital flight tests of new orbital launch vehicles designed to serve the booming smalls satellite market. Suborbital has become a much more interesting sector.

This year has been no exception. The first half of 2022 saw Blue Origin send 12 people into space on two New Shepard flights, a Chinese company conduct six launches in a program to develop aa suborbital spaceplane and hypersonic transport, South Korea and Iran perform flight tests of three different smallsat launchers, Germany test technologies for reusable rockets, and first-ever commercial launch from Australia. And, a great deal of science was done.

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DLR Launches Sounding Rocket to Test Reusable Booster Technology

Launch of the STORT flight experiment. [Credit: DLR (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)]
  • DLR flies three-stage sounding rocket for the first time.
  • Component structures, measurement methods and evaluation algorithms tested for the re-entry phase.
  • A modular and distributed data acquisition system allowed the efficient recording of data from the different experiments.
  • Focus: space travel, aerodynamics, sounding rockets.

ANDOYA, Norway (DLR PR) — Reusable carrier systems are exposed to high loads and temperatures when returning to the surface. The German Aerospace Center (DLR) has now successfully tested component structures, measurement methods and evaluation algorithms for the re-entry phase with the flight experiment STORT (key technologies for high-energy return flights from carrier stages). 

In the early morning of June 26, 2022, the three-stage rocket experiment was launched from the Andøya Space launch site in northern Norway. At the apex of the trajectory at an altitude of 38 kilometers, the upper stage reached a flight speed of around 9,000 kilometers per hour, which corresponds to a Mach number of over eight. It then fell into the Atlantic Ocean more than 350 kilometers from the starting point.

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NASA Rockets Launch from Australia to Seek Habitable Star Conditions

The closest star system to Earth is the famous Alpha Centauri group. At a distance of 4.3 light-years, this system is made up of the binary formed by the stars Alpha Centauri A and Alpha Centauri B, plus the faint red dwarf Alpha Centauri C, also known as Proxima Centauri. NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has given us this stunning view of the bright Alpha Centauri A (on the left) and Alpha Centauri B (on the right). (Credits: ESA/NASA)

GREENBELT, Md. (NASA PR) — On the heels of a successful launch on June 26, NASA is set to launch two more sounding rockets from northern Australia during the first half of July. These missions will help astronomers understand how starlight influences a planet’s atmosphere, possibly making or breaking its ability to support life as we know it.

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Successful Italian Sounding Rocket Flight Test

Successful sounding rocket launch in February 2022. (Credit: T4i)

PADOVA, Italy (T4i PR) — On February 24, 2022, the first flight test of an innovative sounding rocket for access-to-space applications for small satellites was successfully performed.

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AFRL/AFOSR Conducts Successful Rocket Launch at NASA Wallops for Hypersonic Research

AFRL/AFOSR BOLT II Rocket launching from NASA/Wallops Flight Facility on March 21, 2022. (Credit: NASA/Wallops/Brian Bonsteel)

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio (AFRL PR) – The BOLT II “In memory of Mike Holden” flight experiment, managed by the Air Force Research Laboratory/Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFRL/AFOSR), launched on the evening of March 21 from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Dr. Michael Holden, who, up until his passing in 2019, had been a leader in the hypersonics field since the 1960s. The flight experiment successfully flew the planned flight path and acquired tremendous scientific data to further our understanding of boundary layer transition, turbulent heating, and drag at hypersonic conditions.

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AFRL/AFOSR to Conduct Sound Rocket Launch at NASA Wallops for Hypersonics Research

Sounding rocket lifts off from Wallops Flight Facility. (Credit: NASA/Allison Stancil-Ervin)

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio (AFRL) – A launch of a two-stage suborbital sounding rocket for the Air Force Research Laboratory/Air Force Office of Scientific Research’s BOLT II flight experiment is set to take place the evening of March 21 at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

Live coverage of the launch will be provided on NASA Wallops YouTube channel. Officials at NASA Wallops project the launch to be visible anywhere from 10 to 120 seconds from parts of seven states: Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia as well as Washington, D.C.

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New Mexico Seeks to Attract Virgin Galactic’s Manufacturing Facility to Spaceport America

A majority of Virgin Galactic’s future Astronauts gather with Sir Richard Branson (center) for a group photo at Virgin Galactic FAITH hangar in Mojave, CA September 25, 2013. Behind the group is the WhiteKnightTwo mated with SpaceShipTwo. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Updated on March 5 at 8:34 a.m. PST with additional information about space companies located in the Los Angeles area and the benefits of industry clusters to employers and employees.

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The state of New Mexico has proposed that Virgin Galactic establish a production facility at Spaceport America, which is where the company plans to begin flying tourists on suborbital space rides later this year. KRQE TV reports:

The New Mexico Economic Development Department says they have a proposal to bring Virgin Galactic’s manufacturing to the Spaceport. Right now, the manufacturing location is in the Mojave desert. Spaceport America has five permanent tenants that are conducting a variety of experiments; including one company that uses laser technology to help land on the moon.

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Weightless Plate Animals – How Gravity Affects Genetic Information

MAPHEUS-9 takes off [Credit: DLR/Thomas Schleuss (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)
  • On January 29, 2022, the DLR sounding rocket MAPHEUS-9 brought four experiments into weightlessness for around six minutes.
  • The rocket, weighing 1.7 tons, took off from the ESRANGE launch site in northern Sweden and reached an altitude of 254 kilometers.
  • Experiments from the fields of materials research and manufacturing technology, granulate physics and gravitational biology were also on board.

KIRUNA, Sweden (DLR PR) — Plate animals usually like it a little warmer. For science, the simplest multicellular animal in the world ended up in northern Sweden – and from there into weightlessness for a short time. On January 29, 2022, the marine organisms were successfully lifted off the rocket launch site on board the MAPHEUS-9 sounding rocket operated by the German Aerospace Center (DLR) at ESRANGE (European Space and Sounding Rocket Range). Three other experiments from the fields of physics, materials research and manufacturing technology also enjoyed six minutes and ten seconds in zero gravity.

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SSC Resumes Rocket Launches From Esrange Space Center

Mapheus-10 sounding rocket launches from Esrange Space Center in Sweden. (Credit: Swedish Space Corporation)

KIRUNA, Sweden (Swedish Space Corporation PR) — Esrange Space Center in northern Sweden has resumed its rocket activities after the fire that damaged the launch site in late August. Today, only three months after the incident, a sounding rocket was once again launched from the base.

Sounding rocket Mapheus-10, owned by the German Aerospace Center (DLR), was successfully launched from the restored launch infrastructure at approximately 09.30 am on Monday, December 6. The onboard payload contained metals for various experiments including studies on solidification of alloy metals. The 1600 kg rocket reached an altitude of 250 kilometers and a speed of 2 kilometers per second. It stayed in microgravity for about six minutes.

“Our staff have worked tirelessly to get temporary launch solutions in place. Buildings used for balloons have been adapted to handle sounding rockets and we have also repaired damaged cabling and installed new safety systems. Resuming launches of these rockets is very important for research in a number of different areas. It feels fantastic that we are now back on track so soon after the accident,“ says Lennart Poromaa, site manager at Esrange.

“After the fire we were concerned that we would not be able to launch rockets from Esrange for a long time, but they have made a very quick restoration of the infrastructure. This is a unique space base and it feels great to be back,” says Alexander Kallenbach, team leader at DLR.

Oh No No, There Goes Momo

Momo F5 rocket begins to plunge back to Earth. (Credit: Interstellar Technologies webcast)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Interstellar Technologies’ fifth launch of its Momo suborbital rocket went awry on Saturday, with the suborbital booster tumbling out of control just over a minute after lift off from Taiki Aerospace Research Field in Japan.

Video of the flight streamed online showed the rocket suffering what the company has called a failure of attitude control about 1 minute 16 seconds into the flight. The booster pitched over and began plunging toward the ocean.

It was the fifth flight of the booster, which has failed four times. Momo’s lone success came in May 2019 when the rocket reached 113.4 kilometers (70.5 miles), which is above the 100 km (62.1 mile) boundary of space known as the Karman line.

Momo rockets launched in 2017 and 2019 reached only 20 km (12 miles) and 13 km (8.1 miles), respectively, before suffering catastrophic failures.

A Momo launched in June 2018 rose for four seconds before crashing back onto the pad and exploding.

Schedule for Upcoming Launches

Electron rocket lifts off on Jan. 31, 2020. (Credit: Rocket Lab)

The week ahead features launches by Rocket Lab and SpaceX, Vega’s first rideshare mission, two Chinese launches, and a Japanese sounding rocket flight.

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2019: A Busy Year in Suborbital Flight

Blue Origin’s New Shepard reusable, suborbital rocket. (Credits: Blue Origin)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

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.
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A New Type of Fire, the Fuel of the Future?

Sparkler (Credit: CC BY 2.0–Markus Grossalber https://flic.kr/p/dzwPs9)

KIRUNA, Sweden (ESA PR) — Later this month a Texus rocket will launch from Esrange, Sweden, that will travel about 260 km upwards and fall back to Earth offering researchers six minutes of zero gravity. Their experiment? Burning metal powder to understand a new type of fire.

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