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NASA Facts

National Aeronautics and Space Administration


Goddard Space Flight Center
Wallops Flight Facility
Public Affairs Office
Wallops Island, VA 23337
(757) 824-1579
FS-1999-06-021-GSFC
NASA Sounding Rockets
NASA suborbital sounding rockets provide an inexpensive retrieved. By retrieving the payload, tremendous
means to conduct space, microgravity and Earth science savings can be achieved because the payloads or
research. In addition, they have proven to be a valuable parts of the payload can be refurbished and flown
test bed for new technologies for future satellites or again.
probes to other planets.
Launch Sites
The payloads, which Sounding rockets are routinely launched from established
rival in complexity to sites at Wallops Island, Va., White Sands Missile Range,
small satellites, range N.M., and Poker Flat Research Range, Alaska, as well as
from atmospheric sites in Norway and Sweden.
probes to astronomy
telescopes and The mobility of the sounding rockets allow the research
detectors. to be conducted where the science occurs. The versatile
rockets also can be launched from temporary launch
With a 99% vehicle ranges. In the past, launch campaigns have been
success rate of more conducted from Puerto Rico, Brazil, Greenland and
than 100 launches Australia.
since 1995, NASA
sounding rockets
deliver for customers, Timing is Important
which include corpora- There are two aspects of timing – getting the payload
tions, universities and ready for flight and launching into the science event when
Black Brant XII Sounding Rocket government agencies. it occurs. NASA sounding rockets meet both of these
important aspects of
science research.
Sounding Rocket Profile
NASA currently uses 13 different sounding rockets and From project initiation to
conducts about 25 launches yearly. The rockets are in launch, depending on the
a variety of sizes from the single-stage Super Arcas, complexity of the payload
which stands 10 feet (3 meters) high to the four-stage and the priority of the
Black Brant XII at 66 feet (20 meters) tall. project, sounding rocket
missions can be readied
These rockets can carry scientific payloads of various in six months to two years,
weights up to 1213 pounds (550 kilograms) to altitudes providing one of the quickest
from 30 miles (48 kilometers) to more than 800 miles avenues to get an
(1,287 kilometers). experiment into space.
The flight profile of a sounding rocket follows a In addition, sounding
parabolic trajectory – it goes up and comes back rockets provide one of the
down. Flight time is less than 30 minutes. Following few ways to conduct in situ
launch, as a rocket motor uses its fuel it separates measurements in space.
from the vehicle and falls back to Earth. The payload Sounding rocket on the launcher
From the Equator to the on Wallops Island.
continues into space after separating from the motor(s) Arctic Circle, sounding
and begins conducting the experiment. When the rockets have delivered payloads into ionospheric events
experiment is completed, the payload reenters the or have coordinated launches to the minute with other
atmosphere and a parachute is deployed, bringing the research instruments both on the ground and in the air,
payload gently back to Earth. The payload is then including satellite overpasses.
Validating New Instruments Teaming with NASA
and Developing New Technology NASA issues Research Announcements each year
for sounding rocket flight proposals. These
Sounding rockets continue to serve as a low-cost anouncements can be found at: http://www.hq.
testbed for new scientific techniques, scientific nasa.gov/office/oss/research.htm The Research
instrumentation, and Program Management Division, Office of Space
spacecraft technology Science, NASA Headquarters, administers the
that are eventually announcements.
flown on satellite Sounding rockets also are used to conduct
missions. reimbursable missions with the customer paying for
NASA support. For further information, contact the
Compton Gamma NASA Sounding Rockets Office, Wallops Flight
Ray Observatory, Facility, (757) 824-2202.
Solar and Helio-
spheric Observatory,
Preparing for the Future
Transition Region and Historically, sounding rocket missions have
Coronal Explorer and provided an excellent research opportunity for
other recent NASA graduate students at the
satellite missions Master’s and Doctorate
have been enabled level.
by technology and
techniques develop- In addition, high school
ed using sounding and undergraduate
students receive hands-
rockets. on education through the
Time-lapse photograph of a rocket NASA Student Involve-
launch into an aurora at Poker Flat The low cost of Student launch program. ment Program and the
Research Range, Alaska. sounding rocket Student Launch Program.
access to space Both involve students in the full research process
fosters innovation: instruments and/or technologies from experiment development through data
which are not sufficiently developed to warrant the analysis.
investment of satellite-program scale funding are often For further information, visit NASA’s sounding rockets homepage:
“prototyped” with initial space testing of sounding http://www.wff.nasa.gov/pages/soundingrockets.html
rockets. June 1999