Constellations, Launch, New Space and more…

The Year in Suborbital Launches

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
January 3, 2017
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The New Shepard capsule separates from its booster as the abort motor fires. (Credit: Blue Origin)

The New Shepard capsule separates from its booster as the abort motor fires. (Credit: Blue Origin)

Although orbital launch vehicles get all the glory (and infamy when they fail), 2016 was also a busy year for the far less glamorous suborbital launch sector. There were 19 suborbital launches at various sites around the world, and two more sounding rocket launches of note where the payload didn’t go above 100 km.

The table below shows suborbital launches throughout the year.

01/15/16 S-310 Uchinoura (Japan) Ionospheric Research Japan Success
01/22/16 New Shepard Corn Ranch (Texas) New Shepard Capsule USA Success
01/23/16 VSB-30 Esrange (Sweden) TEXUS-53 Brazil/Sweden/DLR/ESA Success
02/02/16 VS-30 Esrange (Sweden) SPIDER/LEEWAVES Brazil/Sweden Success
02/22/16 Black Brant IX White Sands
(New Mexico)
CHESS-2 USA Success
03/01/16 Terrier Malemute Wallops Island (Virginia) Multiple payloads USA Success
03/07/16 Terrier Orion Wallops Island (Virginia) SOAREX-9, RadPC, VIP USA Success
04/02/16 New Shepard Corn Ranch (Texas) BORE, COLLIDE USA Success
04/26/16 Tianying 3F Hainan Island (China) Kunpeng-1B, CSSAR China Success
05/18/16 VS-30/Improved Orion Woomera (Australia) HiFire-5B Australia Success
06/01/16 Black Brant IX White Sands (New Mexico) EVE USA Success
06/19/16 New Shepard Corn Ranch (Texas) Capillary Flow Experiment, EITIC, MEDEA USA Success
06/24/16 Terrier Improved Orion Wallops Island (Virginia) RockOn/RockSat-C USA Success
06/30/16 Improved Malemute Andoya (Norway) MaxiDusty 1 Norway Success
07/08/16 Improved Malemute Andoya (Norway) MaxiDusty 1b Norway Success
07/19/16 Terrier Improved Orion Esrange (Sweden) ROTEX-T Germany/Sweden Success
07/27/16 Black Brant IX White Sands (New Mexico) Hi-C USA Spacecraft Failure
08/17/16 Terrier Improved Malemute Wallops Island (Virginia) Rocksat-X USA Partial Failure
10/05/16 New Shepard Corn Ranch (Texas) New Shepard Capsule (Abort Test) USA Success

Eleven launches were conducted in the United States, followed by Sweden with three, Norway with two and Australia, China and Japan with one apiece. The breakdown by launch site is as follows:

  • Corn Ranch, Texas: 4
  • Wallops Island, Virginia: 4
  • Esrange, Sweden: 3
  • White Sands, New Mexico: 3
  • Andoya, Norway: 2
  • Hainan Island, China: 1
  • Uchinoura, Japan: 1
  • Woomera, Australia: 1

Blue Origin Soars in 2016

Precise thrust vector control and deep throttling enable pinpoint booster landing. (Credit: Blue Origin)

Precise thrust vector control and deep throttling enable pinpoint booster landing. (Credit: Blue Origin)

As usual, Blue Origin got the most attention with four New Shepard flights from its West Texas launch site. The flights included a test in June during which one of the capsule’s three parachutes was deliberately not inflated. The capsule survived the landing just fine.

In October, Blue Origin conducted a spectacular mid-flight test of the capsule’s abort system. The abort rocket fired as planned, pulling the capsule clear of its booster to descend separately under its parachutes.

The booster was not expecting the booster to survive the test, but it did. The rocket descended toward the desert floor, deployed its landing legs and touching down safely.

It was the fifth and final flight of the booster and the sixth flight of the capsule. Blue Origin retired both vehicles immediately after the flight.

The company plans to begin flights of New Shepard in 2017 using test subjects – they won’t be test pilots because the brief suborbital flights are fully automated. If all goes well, Blue Origin will begin flying paying customers on suborbital rides sometime in 2018.

Researchers conducted a number of microgravity experiments aboard New Shepard. The Southwest Research Institute flew the Box of Rocks Experiment (BORE), which consisted of two transparent boxes enclosing two types of rocks that simulate the loose materials that cover small asteroids.

“BORE was designed as a simple, no-moving-parts experiment to study the settling effects of regolith,” said SwRI’s Dan Durda, BORE principal investigator. “We know very little about the low-gravity geological processes on the surfaces of these small bodies. Even watching the jostling behavior during low-speed collisions as these regolith simulants settle in microgravity can teach us a lot about what to expect as we set off to explore them.”

On the same flight, the University of Central Florida sent up the Collisions Into Dust (COLLIDE) experiment that used a bed dust and a marble to better understand collisions in the Solar System.

Hypersonic Research Down Under

Research into hypersonic flight continued in Australia through the Hypersonic International Flight Research Experimentation Program (HiFiRE) program. The HiFire 5B booster hit a speed of Mach 7.5 (9,200 kmph) after launch from the Woomera Test Range.

The program is a collaboration of Boeing, U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory, University of Queensland and the Defence Science and Technology Group. Additional launches are planned at Woomera in 2017.

India Tests New Technologies

India flew two sounding rockets that, while they did not reach space, allowed engineers to test new space technologies.

In May, the Indian space agency ISRO flew the Hypersonic Flight Experiment (HEX) aboard a HS-9 sounding rocket. The winged, aircraft like vehicle was a scaled prototype for a reusable spacecraft. It reached an altitude of 70 km before crashing into the Bay of Bengal.

In August, ISRO tested a scramjet engine during a five-minute sounding rocket flight. The engine was designed to test technologies for a new rocket booster.