As the new era of private spaceflight takes shape, one aspect of space exploration that has gained significant attention is suborbital rockets. By reaching the boundary of space without going into orbit around Earth, these rockets provide a platform for a variety of scientific, commercial, and even touristic applications.
What is a Suborbital Rocket?
A suborbital rocket, as the name suggests, is a type of rocket that is launched to reach the edge of space but doesn’t attain the speed required to stay in orbit around the Earth. These rockets follow a trajectory that reaches space (often defined as an altitude above 100 kilometers, the Kármán line) but then falls back to Earth, as opposed to an orbital trajectory that circles the Earth.
This path, known as a suborbital trajectory, typically results in a flight duration ranging from a few minutes to a few hours. The rocket’s trajectory resembles an arch, launching from one location on Earth, reaching a peak altitude in space, and then returning to Earth, often at a different location.
Applications of Suborbital Rockets
Despite not achieving a full orbit around Earth, suborbital rockets serve many purposes and offer numerous benefits:
Scientific Research: Suborbital rockets can carry scientific experiments into space for brief periods of microgravity exposure. They can also reach the upper layers of Earth’s atmosphere, allowing researchers to study these regions in ways that aren’t possible with ground-based observations or satellite measurements. This has applications in fields such as atmospheric science, astronomy, and space physics.
Technology Testing: Suborbital flights provide an opportunity to test new space technologies in a real space environment without the expense and commitment of a full orbital mission. Components like new types of sensors, materials, or communication technologies can be tested on suborbital flights before being incorporated into longer-duration missions.
Space Tourism: Perhaps one of the most exciting prospects of suborbital rockets is space tourism. Companies like Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are developing suborbital rockets specifically designed to take paying passengers to the edge of space, where they can experience a few minutes of weightlessness and see the curvature of Earth against the backdrop of space.
Education: Suborbital flights can also serve as educational tools. Students can design and carry out experiments to be launched on suborbital rockets, giving them practical experience in space science and engineering. This real-world application can spark interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields and inspire the next generation of space explorers.
Fast Point-To-Point Travel: While not yet realized, there’s potential for suborbital rockets to be used for rapid long-distance travel on Earth. By reaching space, these rockets can achieve high speeds and cover great distances in a fraction of the time it would take with conventional aircraft.
Current and Future Developments
Several companies and organizations are at the forefront of developing and utilizing suborbital rockets:
Blue Origin’s New Shepard: This reusable suborbital rocket system is designed to take passengers or payloads to space and back. It has successfully conducted multiple uncrewed and crewed flights.
Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo: This spacecraft, launched from a carrier aircraft, can carry passengers to the edge of space. Founder Richard Branson was part of a crewed flight in 2021.
NASA’s Suborbital Research Program: NASA frequently uses suborbital rockets to conduct scientific research and technology testing. They use a variety of platforms, from small sounding rockets to larger, reusable suborbital vehicles like Blue Origin’s New Shepard.
Looking towards the future, the use of suborbital rockets is likely to increase as technology continues to advance, costs come down, and new applications are realized. Whether it’s for research, tourism, or transportation, suborbital rockets promise to play an on going role in the continued exploration and utilization of space.