2020 a Busy Year for Suborbital Launches

New Shepard landing on the pad in West Texas on October 13, 2020, with the NASA Lunar Landing Sensor Demo onboard. (Credit: Blue Origin)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

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.

Things have heated on the military side as well. Russia conducted two direct-ascent anti-satellite tests last year in the latest signs of an increasing arms race in space. The U.S. Missile Defense Agency and Israeli military performed successful anti-ballistic missile tests. And the U.S. Navy tested hypersonic technology on a suborbital flight.

Civilian Suborbital Launches

NASA and SpaceX completed a launch escape demonstration of the company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket on Jan. 19, 2020. The test began at 10:30 a.m. EST with liftoff from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on a mission to show the spacecraft’s capability to safely separate from the rocket in the unlikely event of an inflight emergency. (Credits: NASA Television)

On Jan. 19, SpaceX performed a successful in-flight abort test of its Crew Dragon spacecraft. The vehicle fired its SuperDraco engines as the Falcon 9 launch vehicle experienced maximum aerodynamic pressure. Crew Dragon soared to an altitude of 42 km (26.1 miles), jettisoned its trunk section, and then descended under parachutes to a splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean. The booster was destroyed by aerodynamic pressure.

SpaceX had planned to use the same capsule that had flown to the International Space Station (ISS) on an automated demonstration mission in March 2019. However, that spacecraft was destroyed in a test stand explosion, an accident that required a new capsule for the abort test and a redesign of the SuperDraco propulsion system.

The in-flight abort test was one of the last major milestones before astronauts could fly aboard a Crew Dragon. On May 30, NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley launched to ISS on a 64-day mission.

The Crew Dragon mission was the final test flights before SpaceX began flying crews on a commercial basis in November 2020. It also was the first orbital launch from American soil since the space shuttle’s final flight in July 2011.

Civilian Suborbital Launches, 2020

01/09/20S-310Uchinoura (Japan)JAXATechnology testSuccess
01/19/20Falcon 9Kennedy Space Center (Florida)SpaceXCrew Dragon in-flight abort testSuccess
01/27/20Black Brant IXPoker Flat Research Range (Alaska)NASA – Virginia TechPolarNOx 2 thermosphere researchSuccess
02/19/20Improved MalemuteEsrange (Sweden)Swedish National Space AgencySPIDER-2 atmospheric analysis testSuccess
06/14/20Momo 5Taiki Aerospace Research Field (Japan)Interstellar Technologies – Kochi University of TechnologyFlight testFailure
08/14/20Skylark Micro Launch ILanganes Peninsula (Iceland)SkyroraFlight testSuccess
09/08/20Black Brant IXWhite Sands Missile Range (New Mexico)NASA/JAXATest of formation and growth of small particlesSuccess
09/19/20T-Minus DartKoonibba Test Range (Australia)DEWC SystemsMiniaturized orbital electronic warfare sensor system
09/19/20T-Minus DartKoonibba Test Range (Australia)DEWC SystemsMiniaturized orbital electronic warfare sensor system
10/13/20New ShepardCorn Ranch (Texas)NS-13Test flight & microgravity researchSuccess
11/02/20Black Brant IXWhite Sands Missile Range (New Mexico)NASADEUCE
astronomy mission
`12/12/20SpaceShipTwoSpaceport America (New Mexico)Virgin GalacticFlight test & microgravity researchAbort

Blue Origin had a quiet year on the suborbital flight front. A planned launch of its New Shepard vehicle at its Corn Ranch facility in west Texas in the spring was reportedly canceled over employees’ fears about catching the COVID-19 virus.

It was not until Oct. 13 that Blue Origin launched New Shepard on its only flight of 2020. It was the 13th test of the program.

New Shepard will test landing technology for NASA. (Credit: Blue Origin)

The vehicle carried 12 payloads consisting of microgravity experiments and technology demonstrations. NASA’s Deorbit, Descent, and Landing Sensor Demonstration payload was attached to the exterior of New Shepard. The payload tested technology that will allow future lunar landers to achieve highly accurate landings on the moon.

“Today’s flight was inspiring. Using New Shepard to simulate landing on the Moon is an exciting precursor to what the Artemis program will bring to America,” said Bob Smith, CEO, Blue Origin. “Thanks to NASA for partnering with us, and congrats to the Blue Origin team on taking another step toward returning to the Moon to stay.”

In February, Virgin Galactic’s VMS Eve carrier aircraft relocated the VSS Unity SpaceShipTwo vehicle from its manufacturing and test site at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California to its operating base at Spaceport America in New Mexico.

On May 1, VSS Unity conducted its first flight from Spaceport America. The rocket plane glided to a runway landing after being dropped from VMS Eve. A second glide test followed on June 25.

SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity makes first glide flight at Spaceport America in New Mexico. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

On Dec. 12, Virgin Galactic attempted its first VSS Unity powered flight test in 22 months. Pilots David Mackay and C.J. Sturckow were set to carry a load of NASA-funded experiments on a suborbital test above 50 miles (80.4 km).

They were not able to complete their mission. The ship’s engine automatically shut down after its computer lost contact with it. The pilots guided VSS Unity to an unpowered runway landing at Spaceport America in New Mexico.

On Aug. 14, UK-based Skyrora conducted the maiden suborbital flight of its Skylark Micro rocket from the Langanes Peninsula in Iceland. The two-stage, four-meter tall booster reach an altitude of 26.86 km (16.69 miles/88,123 ft) in a successful flight that tested avionics, communications systems and marine recovery operations.

Slylark-L hot fire (Credit: Skyrora)

Skyrora is using the Skylark Micro booster as part of a “de-risking” program to test technologies before it attempts launches of the larger Skylark L suborbital and Skylark XL orbital rockets.

On Sept. 19, Netherlands-based T-Minus Engineering conducted two successful flights of its Dart booster from the Koonibba Test Range in Australia. DEWC Systems used the flights to test its miniaturized orbital electronic warfare sensor system.

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

Interstellar Technologies continued a string of bad luck with its Momo rocket. On June 14, the Momo 5 rocket went out of control after liftoff from the Taiki Aerospace Research Field. It was the fourth failure in five launch attempts for the company’s suborbital rocket.

Military Suborbital Flights

Russia conducted two direct-ascent anti-satellite missile tests using PL-19 Nudol rockets. The first flight occurred on April 15, and the second one eight months later on Dec. 16. Both flights were launched out the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in northern Russia.

The United States condemned the tests as an unnecessary militarization of space that threatens to create dangerous orbital debris.

“Russia publicly claims it is working to prevent the transformation of outer space into a battlefield, yet at the same time Moscow continues to weaponize space by developing and fielding on-orbit and ground-based capabilities that seek to exploit U.S. reliance on space-based systems,” said U.S. Army Gen. James Dickinson, U.S. Space Command commander, after the December test.

Selected Military Suborbital Flights, 2020

03/20/20UGM-27 Polaris (STARS)Barking Sands (Hawaii)U.S. NavyCommon-Hypersonic Glide Body testSuccess
04/15/20PL-19 “Nudol”PlesetskRussian MilitaryASAT testSuccess
08/12/20AST-18A ABM targetF-15 EagleIsraeli Air ForceAST-18a target intercepted by Arrow 2 rocketSuccess
11/17/20ICBM-T2Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site (Marshall Islands)Missile Defense AgencyICBM target intercepted by SM-3 FMT-44.Success
11/17/20SM-3 Block IIA (FMT-44)USS John FinnMissile Defense AgencyIntercepted ICBM-T2 in spaceSuccess
12/16/20PL-19 “Nudol”PlesetskRussian MilitaryASAT testSuccess

U.S. Space Command also accused Russia of conducting a co-orbital ASAT test in July using the Cosmos 2543 satellite. The spacecraft “operated in abnormally close proximity to a U.S. government satellite in low-earth orbit before it maneuvered away and over to another Russian satellite, where it released another object in proximity to the Russia target satellite. This test is inconsistent with the intended purpose of the satellite as an inspector system, as described by Russia,” U.S. Space Command said in a press release.

On March 20, the U.S. Navy conducted a successful Common-Hypersonic Glide Body test from the Pacific Missile Range Facility Barking Sands in Hawaii. The flight used a UGM-27 Polaris (STARS) missile consisting of refurbished Polaris first and second stages.

”This test was a critical step in rapidly delivering operational hypersonic capabilities to our warfighters in support of the National Defense Strategy,” said U.S. Army LTG L. Neil Thurgood, Director of Hypersonics, Directed Energy, Space and Rapid Acquisition. “We successfully executed a mission consistent with how we can apply this capability in the future. The joint team did a tremendous job in executing this test, and we will continue to move aggressively to get prototypes to the field.”

In November, the U.S. Missile Defense Agency conducted a successful anti-ballistic missile test. A SM-3 Block IIA rocket launched from the USS John Finn intercepted a ballistic missile target launched from the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site in the Marshall Islands.

On Aug. 12, an Israeli Air Force F-15 launched the AST-18a ballistic missile target that was intercepted by an Arrow 2 rocket.

The United States and Russia conducted six suborbital tests of ballistic missiles apiece. India conducted two ballistic missile tests and France tested one rocket.