Suborbital Flights Stopped Being So Humdrum in 2018

Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo’s first flight above 50 miles on Dec. 13, 2018. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Part 1 of 2

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

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.)

But, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic were not the only ones that made suborbital launches exciting in 2018. The competition to develop new launch vehicles to serve the rapidly growing small satellite market resulted in nine suborbital flight tests of six different boosters in four nations.

Four of the nine flights were conducted by Chinese startups. The loosening of restrictions on commercial launch providers by the Chinese government promises to provide competition in both the suborbital and orbital sectors. There were also suborbital flight tests conducted in South Korea, Japan and the United States.

Despite these developments, the majority of suborbital flights in 2018 were conducted using traditional sounding rockets that continued to provide reliable rides to the lower reaches of space for experiments and technology demonstrations. These expendable boosters could continue to play a key role in suborbital flight for years to come.

Parabolic Arc’s look at suborbital spaceflight in 2018 will be done in two parts. This article will provide an overview of the 43 suborbital launches and vehicle flight tests conducted last year. A second story tomorrow will examine the flight tests conducted by Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic and other launch providers around the world. (See: 2018 Was Busy Year for Suborbital Flight Tests)

Civilian Suborbital Launches

In this image, the second stage of the Black Brant IX sounding rocket separates from the ASPIRE payload. The third and final flight test of the ASPIRE payload was launched from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Sept. 7, 2018. (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The suborbital field continued to be dominated by the United States in 2018, with NASA playing a leading role in funding flights and sponsoring experiments. Twenty-six of the 43 launches and flight tests were conducted in the United States, with two others conducted at a U.S. Army range in the Marshall Islands. Four additional U.S. launches were conducted in Norway.

Of the 43 suborbital launches and flight tests last year, 39 were successful, three failed and one suffered a partial failure. The table below shows launches and flight tests from last year. (Only civilian flights are listed; ballistic missile tests are not included.)

CIVILIAN SUBORBITAL LAUNCHES & VEHICLE FLIGHT TESTS, 2018
DATELAUNCH VEHICLE
MISSION/PURPOSE/SPONSOR
LAUNCH SITERESULT
01/19/18Black Brant IXDXL-3 (Astronomy) — University of MiamiPoker Flats (Alaska)Success
01/26/18Terrier-Improved OrionSuper Soaker (Atmospheric Research) — Atmospheric & Space Technology Research Associates (ASTRA)Poker Flats (Alaska)Success
01/26/18Terrier-Improved OrionSuper Soaker — Atmospheric Research — ASTRAPoker Flats (Alaska)Success
01/26/18Terrier-Improved OrionSuper Soaker — Atmospheric Research — ASTRAPoker Flats (Alaska)Success
03/25/18Terrier-Improved MalemuteUSIP — Student Experiments — NASAWallops Island (Virginia)Success
03/31/18Black Brant IXASPIRE — Mars 2020 Parachute TestWallops Island (Virginia)Success
04/04/18Black Brant IXWRX-R – X-ray astronomy (Pennsylvania State University)Kwajalein Atoll (Marshall Islands)Success
04/04/18Hyperbola-1S (Shian Quxian 1Z)Flight test by i-space with mass simulatorHainan Island (China)Success
04/05/18VSS Unity (SpaceShipTwo)Flight test by Virgin Galactic; first powered flight by Unity and fifth of the program; reached 25 km (82,271 ft/15.6 miles)Mojave Air & Space Port (California)Success
04/06/18RH-300 Mk-IIIonospheric Research – ISRO Vikram Sarabhai Space CentreTERLS (India)Success
04/16/18Black Brant IXCHESS-4 – UV astronomy – University of ColoradoKwajalein Atoll (Marshall Islands)Success
04/29/18New ShepardFlight test by Blue Origin with microgravity experiments, technology demonstrations & mannequin aboardCorn Ranch (Texas)Success
05/13/18VSB-30TEXUS-54 – microgravity experiments – DLR/ESAEsrange (Sweden)Success
05/17/18OS-XFlight test by OneSpace, which is developing OS-M orbital boosterAlxaSuccess
05/23/18Terrier MalemuteHOT SHOT 1 – Technology experiments – National Nuclear Security AdministrationPacific Spaceport Complex — AlaskaSuccess
05/29/18Black Brant IXHi-C 2.1 – solar research – NASA/Marshall Space Flight CenterWhite Sands (New Mexico)Success
05/29/18VSS Unity (SpaceShipTwo)Flight test by Virgin Galactic; second powered flight by Unity and sixth of the program; reached 34.9 km (114,500 ft/21.7 miles)Mojave Air & Space Port (California)Success
05/31/18VSB-30TEXUS-55 – microgravity experiments – DLR/ESAEsrange (Sweden)Success
06/18/18Black Brant IXEVE – Solar Dynamics Observatory calibration – CU BoulderWhite Sands (New Mexico)Success
06/21/18Terrier-Improved OrionRockOn – Student Experiments – University of ColoradoWallops Island (Virginia)Success
06/29/18Momo 2Flight test by Interstellar Technologies; rocket exploded shortly after launchTaiki (Japan)Failure
07/18/18New ShepardFlight test by Blue Origin with microgravity experiments, technology demonstrations & mannequin aboardCorn Ranch (Texas)Success
07/20/18Rocket OneFlight test by Astra Space of first stage of orbital booster; cause of failure unknownPacific Spaceport Complex — AlaskaFailure
07/23/18Black Brant IXMicro-X – X-ray astronomy — Northwestern UniversityWhite Sands (New Mexico)Success
07/26/18VSS Unity (SpaceShipTwo)Flight test by Virgin Galactic; third powered flight by Unity and seventh of the program; reached 52 km (170,800 ft/32.3 miles)Mojave Air & Space Port (California)Success
08/14/18Terrier-Improved MalemuteRockSat X – student experiments – NASAWallops Island (Virginia)Success
08/25/18SARGE Flight test by Exos Aerospace of reusable booster; rocket failed to reach intended altitude Spaceport America Partial Failure
09/05/18Hyperbola-1Z (Shian Quxian 1Z)Flight test by i-space with 3 CubeSatsJiuquan (China)Success
09/07/18Black Brant IXASPIRE 3 – Mars 2020 Parachute Test – NASAWallops Island (Virginia)Success
09/07/18Black Brant IXFOXSI (Focusing Optics X-ray Solar Imager) – University of MinnesotaWhite Sands (New Mexico)Success
09/07/18OS-X-1Flight test by OneSpace, which is developing OS-M orbital boosterJiuquan (China)Success
09/12/18SpaceLoft XLFOP-5 (ADEPT, SFEM-3, AFTS) – Technology demonstrations – UP AerospaceSpaceport America (New Mexico)Success
09/17/18SpaceLoft XLFOP-6, Celestis 15 – Technology demonstrations, memorial flight – UP AerospaceSpaceport AmericaSuccess
09/27/18NucleusTechnology experiments — NammoAndoya (Norway)Success
11/28/18KSLV-2 Pilot VehicleFlight test by Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI) for orbital launch vehicleNaro (South Korea)Success
11/29/18Rocket TwoFlight test by Astra Space of first stage of orbital booster; cause of failure unknownPacific Spaceport Complex — AlaskaFailure
12/07/18Black BrantVISIONS-2 1 – Ionospheric research – NASA GoddardNy-Aalesund (Norway)Success
12/07/18Black Brant XVISIONS-2 2 – Ionospheric research – NASA GoddardNy-Aalesund (Norway)Success
12/08/18Black Brant XIIATRICE 2-High – electrodynamics research – University of IowaAndoya (Norway)Success
12/08/18Black Brant XIIATRICE 2-Low – electrodynamics research – University of IowaAndoya (Norway)Success
12/09/18VS-30PSR-01 – Microgravity experiments — AEB – National Institute for Space Research (INPE)Alcantara (Brazil)Success
12/13/18VSS Unity (SpaceShipTwo)Flight test by Virgin Galactic; first SpaceSpaceTwo flight above 50 miles (80.4 km); reached 82.7 km (271,268 ft/51.4 miles); carried 4 NASA sponsored experiments; crew received astronaut wingsMojave Air & Space Port (California)Success
12/18/18Black Brant IXDUECE 2 – Astronomy – University of ColoradoWhite Sands (New Mexico)Success

Virgin Galactic flew VSS Unity four times last year to ever higher altitudes. On the fourth flight in December, the SpaceShipTwo vehicle exceeded 50 miles in altitude for the first time. The FAA awarded astronaut wings to pilots C.J. Sturckow and Mark Stucky for a flight that reached 82.7 km (271,268 ft/51.4 miles) and Mach 2.9. Virgin Galactic plans to fly company employees as passengers on flight tests later this year before beginning commercial service from Spaceport America in New Mexico.

Blue Origin flew its reusable New Shepard rocket and capsule twice above 100 km (62.1 miles) last year. The flights carried sponsored experiments and an instrumented dummy named Mannequin Skywalker. The company plans to begin flying people aboard the vehicle early this year.

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

Flight Tests

There were 15 flight tests of eight different suborbital launch systems last year when the six flights by Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin are included in the total. Eleven of the flights succeeded, three failed and one was a partial failure.

Successful

  • Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity (USA): 4
  • Blue Origin’s New Shepard (USA): 2
  • i-space’s Hyperbola 1S & 1Z (China): 2
  • OneSpace’s OS-X-1 (China): 2
  • KSLV-2 Pilot Vehicle (South Korea): 1

Failures

  • Astra Space’s Rocket 1 & 2 (USA): 2
  • Interstellar Technologies MOMO-2 (Japan): 1

Partial Failure

  • EXOS Aerospace’s SARGE (USA): 1

The table below provides details on these flight tests.

FLIGHT TESTS OF SUBORBITAL LAUNCH VEHICLES, 2018
DATELAUNCH VEHICLE
MISSION/PURPOSE/SPONSOR
LAUNCH SITERESULT
04/04/18Hyperbola-1S (Shian Quxian 1S)Flight test by i-space with mass simulatorHainan Island (China)Success
04/05/18VSS Unity (SpaceShipTwo)Flight test by Virgin Galactic; first powered flight by Unity and fifth of the program; reached 25 km (82,271 ft/15.6 miles)Mojave Air & Space Port (California)Success
04/29/18New ShepardFlight test by Blue Origin; mannequin, microgravity experiments & technology demonstrations aboardCorn Ranch (Texas)Success
05/17/18OS-XFlight test by OneSpace, which is developing OS-M orbital boosterAlxa (China)Success
05/29/18VSS Unity (SpaceShipTwo)Flight test by Virgin Galactic; second powered flight by Unity and sixth of the program; reached 34.9 km (114,500 ft/21.7 miles)Mojave Air & Space Port (California)Success
06/29/18Momo 2Flight test by Interstellar Technologies; rocket exploded shortly after launchTaiki (Japan)Failure
07/18/18New ShepardFlight test by Blue Origin; mannequin, microgravity experiments & technology demonstrations aboardCorn Ranch (Texas)Success
07/20/18Rocket OneFlight test by Astra Space of first stage of orbital booster; cause of failures unknownPacific Spaceport Complex — AlaskaFailure
07/26/18VSS Unity (SpaceShipTwo)Flight test by Virgin Galactic; third powered flight by Unity and seventh of the program; reached 52 km (170,800 ft/32.3 miles)Mojave Air & Space Port (California)Success
08/25/18SARGEFlight test by EXOS Aerospace of reusable booster; rocket failed to reach intended altitude Spaceport America Partial Failure
09/05/18Hyperbola-1Z (Shian Quxian 1Z)Flight test by i-space with 3 CubeSatsJiuquan (China)Success
09/07/18OS-X-1Flight test by OneSpace, which is developing OS-M orbital boosterJiuquan (China)Success
11/28/18KSLV-2 Pilot VehicleFlight test by Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI) for orbital launch vehicleNaro (South Korea)Success
11/29/18Rocket TwoFlight test by Astra Space of first stage of orbital booster; cause of failure unknownPacific Spaceport Complex — AlaskaFailure
12/13/18VSS Unity (SpaceShipTwo)Flight test by Virgin Galactic; first SpaceSpaceTwo flight above 50 miles (80.4 km); reached 82.7 km (271,268 ft/51.4 miles); carried 4 NASA sponsored experiments; crew received astronaut wingsMojave Air & Space Port (California)Success

Sounding Rocket Launches

Traditional sounding rockets continued to dominate suborbital flights last year with a total of 28 launches. The table below provides details of the flights. (Tests of new boosters are not included.)

SUBORBITAL SOUNDING ROCKET LAUNCHES, 2018
LAUNCH VEHICLELAUNCH LOCATIONS
SUCCESSES
FAILURES
PARTIAL FAILURES
TOTAL
Black Brant Launch Vehicles
Black Brant IXWhite Sands (New Mexico) — 5, Kwajailein Atoll (Marshall Islands) — 2, Wallops Island (Virginia) — 2, Poker Flats (Alaska) –1100010
Black Brant X
Ny-Aalesund (Norway)
2002
Black Brant XIIAAndoya (Norway)2002
Terrier Launch Vehicles
Terrrier-Improved OrionPoker Flats — 3 (Alaska), Wallops Island — 1 (Virginia)4004
Terrier-Improved MalemutePoker Flats (Alaska)2002
Terrier MulemutePacific Spaceport Complex — Alaska1001
Other Sounding Rockets
VSB-30Esrange (Sweden) — 2, Alcantara (Brazil) — 13003
SpaceLoft XLSpaceport America (New Mexico)200
2
NucleusAndoya (Norway)1001
RH-300 Mk-IITERLS (India)1001
2828028

The Black Brant family of launchers accounted for 14 of the 40 launch attempts. Black Brant IX flew 10 times while Black Brant X and Black Brant XIIA flew two times apiece.

The Terrier family of boosters flew a combined seven times last year. The Terrier Improved Orion flew four times, the Terrier-improved Malemute twice, and Terrier Malemute once.

The Brazilian sounding rocket VSB 30 flew three times. UP Aerospace successfully launched its SpaceLoft XL booster twice from Spaceport America.

Launches by Purpose/Payloads

The table below shows the number of suborbital flights by purpose or payload. Some of the flight tests carried payloads that fit into multiple categories while others carried mass simulators.

SUBORBITAL LAUNCHES & VEHICLE FLIGHT TESTS BY PURPOSE/PAYLOADS, 2018
PURPOSE/PAYLOADSNO. OF FLIGHTS
Launch Vehicle Flight Tests15
Astronomical Research5
Technology Demonstrations4
Microgravity Experiments3
Microgravity Experiments & Technology Demonstrations3
Atmospheric Research3
Ionospheric Research3
Solar Research3
Student Experiments3
Electrodynamics Research2
Mars 2020 Parachute Test2
CubeSats1
Memorial1

NASA plays a key role in the suborbital sector by launching sounding rockets and flying its own experiments. The space agency also sponsors the launch of payloads by others through the Flight Opportunities Program.

Reusable launch vehicles like New Shepard and SpaceShipTwo give researchers the ability to fly and recover the same experiments, instruments and technology demonstrations multiple times. The repetition allows them to gather more data and refine their work.

The Vibration Isolation Platform from Controlled Dynamics Inc. has completed five successful Flight Opportunities-sponsored flights on suborbital reusable launch vehicles (sRLVs). The scheduled flight on SpaceShipTwo will mark its sixth. (Credits: Controlled Dynamics Inc.)

For example, Controlled Dynamics has been able to test its Vibration Isolation Platform on both New Shepard and VSS Unity. The system is designed to provide a purer microgravity environment for experiments on suborbital and orbital flights by isolating them from the vibrations and stresses of launch.

NASA also funded an experiment by SolStar to develop commercial WiFi system for space aboard New Shepard’s ninth flight last year. The company had flown the experiment on the eighth New Shepard flight earlier in the year using its own funding.

United States Continues to Lead

A Black Brant IX sounding rockets lifts off from the Wallops Flight Facility with the ASPIRE experiment on board on Sept. 7, 2018. (Credit: NASA/Allison Stancil)

The United States continues to dominate the suborbital launch sector, accounting for 32 of the 43 launches and flight tests last year. The total includes 26 flights from U.S. soil, two from a U.S. range in the Marshall Islands, and four from Norway.

SUBORBITAL LAUNCHES & VEHICLE FLIGHT TESTS BY LAUNCH SITE, 2018
LAUNCH SITENATION
SUCCESSES
FAILURESPARTIAL FAILURES
TOTALS
Wallops IslandUSA5005
White SandsUSA5005
Mojave Air & Space PortUSA4^004
Poker FlatsUSA4004
AndoyaNorway3003
Spaceport AmericaUSA2012
Pacific Spaceport Complex — AlaskaUSA1203
Corn RanchUSA2002
EsrangeSweden2002
JiuquanChina2002
Kwajalein AtollMarshall Islands+2002
Ny-AalesundNorway2002
AlcantaraBrazil1001
AxlaChina1001
Hainan IslandChina1001
NaroSouth Korea1001
TERLSIndia1001
TaikiJapan0101
TOTALS:393143
+Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site operated by U.S. Army.
^Human flight tests of Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity (SpaceShipTwo). Pilots on fourth flight awarded civilian astronaut wings by Federal Aviation Administration.

Seven suborbital launches were conducted from European launch sites in Norway and Sweden. Four flights were conducted in China followed by Brazil, India, Japan, and South Korea with one apiece.

SUBORBITAL LAUNCHES & VEHICLE FLIGHT TEST FROM U.S. FACILITIES, 2018
LAUNCH SITE
SUCCESSES
FAILURES
PARTIAL FAILURES
TOTAL
Wallops Island (Virginia)5005
White Sands (New Mexico)5005
Mojave Air and Space Port (California)4^004
Poker Flats (Alaska)4004
Spaceport America (New Mexico)2013
Pacific Spaceport Complex — Alaska1203
Corn Ranch (Texas)2002
Kwajalein Atoll (Marshall Islands)+2002
TOTALS:252128
+Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site operated by U.S. Army.
^Human flight tests of Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity (SpaceShipTwo). Pilots on fourth flight awarded civilian astronaut wings by Federal Aviation Administration.

In the United States, Wallops Island in Virginia and White Sands in New Mexico were tied for the most number of suborbital launches and flight tests at five apiece, followed by the Mojave Air and Space Port in California and Poker Flats in Alaska with four apiece.

Eight launches were conducted in New Mexico at White Sands and Spaceport America. Alaska came in second with seven launches from Poker Flats and the Pacific Spaceport Complex – Alaska.

Part 2: 2018 Was Busy Year for Suborbital Flight Tests