Suborbital Payload Launch
Development of suborbital reusable launch vehicles and related technologies continued in 2014. The European Space Agency (ESA) conducted integration and qualification activities for all systems of its Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle (IXV), a re-entry vehicle that will demonstrate technologies and systems ESA intends to use in future autonomous re-entry missions.
Virgin Galactic announced at the 2012 Farnborough Air Show that, in addition to providing a passenger service, it would be developing a low-cost satellite launcher using the WhiteKnightTwo carrier plane. By replacing SpaceShipTwo with a small two-stage rocket, called LauncherOne, the company predicted that it could send payloads of up to ## kilograms (## pounds) into LEO for less than $## million.
One of the pioneers of commercial suborbital flights, Armadillo Aerospace, announced that it was suspending operations in early August 2013 due to funding issues. Founded by noted video game designer John Carmack, Armadillo Aerospace steadily developed and tested a series of ever-improving vertical take-off, reusable rocket-powered vehicles.
The primary advantages of sounding rockets are their low cost, comparative ease of transport, ability to be launched from locations on land or sea, and relatively short turnaround times between mission concept and launch. These characteristics make sounding rockets a frequent choice of university science programs and research institutes that require less expensive access to space, enabling space-based experiments that might not otherwise receive funding.
Uncrewed suborbital vehicles, also called sounding rockets, come in diverse sizes and capabilities. They range from relatively small single-stage vehicles that carry payloads of a few dozen kilograms to altitudes of 160 kilometers (100 miles), to larger rockets that use up to four stages to lift several-hundred-kilogram payloads as high as 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles).
The traditional suborbital launch vehicle, the sounding rocket, is uncrewed and launched in assorted configurations. From the very small to the extremely large, sounding rockets are used as an inexpensive and more accessible means for conducting experiments and observing space phenomena. During 2015, other types of suborbital vehicles moved into the suborbital launch domain.
NASA’s Sounding Rockets Program Office (SRPO) launches sounding rockets from locations such as Andøya, Norway; Esrange, Sweden; Kwajalein Atoll, Marshall Islands; Poker Flats, Alaska; White Sands, New Mexico; and Wallops Island, Virginia. The suborbital nature of the sounding rockets makes them ideal platforms to conduct short near-Earth space science, astrophysics, and heliophysics experiments, as well as for testing new sensors and other burgeoning space technologies. SRPO arranges workshops with primary and secondary school teachers and provides internships to university students to familiarize them with engineering and science disciplines.
Blue Origin, a secretive company funded by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, revealed in September 2011 that in August it had suffered a failure of one of its New Shepard suborbital test vehicles. The company reported that it lost control of its PM 2 vehicle at an altitude of 13,700 meters (45,000 feet) and a speed of Mach 1.2.
There is growing interest in suborbital reusable launch vehicles to conduct experiments and research. Masten Space Systems of Mojave, California, is developing the Extreme Altitude series of unmanned suborbital vehicles to carry experimental payloads. The company is offering to launch payloads at a price of $## per kilogram ($## per pound), or a “Sodasat” payload for $##, so named because its size and mass is similar to that of a can of soda.