This page no longer updated from 31 October 2001. Latest version can be found at www.astronautix.com

astronautix.com Sounding Rockets

Suborbital rockets are used to for low cost access to space where observations or tests of limited duration are acceptable. They are also used to study the near-earth environment, test spacecraft components and reentry vehicles. Often sounding rockets are derived from surplus military rockets retired from service.


Launch Vehicle: Aerobee. Aerobee sounding rocket was developed by the Aerojet Engineering Corp.

Launch Vehicle: Deacon. First Deacon rockets launched from Wallops Island achieved a velocity of 1,400 m per second.

Launch Vehicle: Loki.

Loki solid-propellant antiaircraft missiles were used as sounding rockets. JPL fired first of a series of 3,544 Loki solid-propellant antiaircraft missiles at WSPG, the Army program ending after September 1955. Loki rocket was later used in ONR Rockoon upper atmosphere balloon-launched rocket research soundings.


Launch Vehicle: Rockoon.

The Rockoon low-cost technique was conceived during an Aerobee firing cruse of the Norton Sound in March 1949. The Rockoon (balloon-launched rocket) consisted of a small high-performance sounding rocket launched from a balloon above most of the atmosphere. Rockoons were first launched from icebreaker Eastwind off Greenland by an ONR group under James A. Van Allen. They were later used by ONR and University of Iowa research groups in 1953-55 and 1957, from ships in sea between Boston and Thule, Greenland.


Launch Vehicle: Nike-Deacon. Two-stage rocket for heat transfer studies launched from NACA Wallops Island.

Launch Vehicle: Aerobee-Hi. Aerobee-Hi sounding rocket could deliver 100 kg to 200 km.

Launch Vehicle: Asp. Sounding rocket, capable of payloads up to 35 kg.

Launch Vehicle: Rockair.

Rockair technique (resarch rocket launched from aircraft) by ONR and University of Maryland. A 2.75-inch FFAR rocket was fired from a Navy F2H-2 aircraft to an altitude of approximately 60,000 m. Rockair technique first suggested by Herman Oberth (1929) and others.


Launch Vehicle: Cajun. Cajun research rocket.

Launch Vehicle: Nike-Cajun. Nike-Cajun research rockets fired from Wallops Island in a cooperative NACA-University of Michigan project, attained an altitude of 140,000 m.

Launch Vehicle: Terrapin. Terrapin sounding rockets, launched from Wallops Island, consisted of a Deacon and T55 rocket and carried a payload of 3.5 kg to 130,000 m altitude.

Launch Vehicle: Wasp. Wasp research and develoment chaff and parachute rockets were used to obtain wind soundings to 260,000 m, fired by Naval Ordnance Missile Test Facility at WSPG.

Launch Vehicle: X-17. USAF X-17 flight test program at Cape Canaveral studied reentry problems by simulating reentry velocities and conditions with a three-stage solid-fuel Lockheed X-17. A total of 26 X-17 flights were conducted until March 1957.

Launch Vehicle: RM-10. Two-stage test vehicle to make heat transfer studies at high speed in free flight, launched from NACA's Pilotless Aircraft Reserach Station at Wallops Island, Va. Vehicle was developed by PARD of Langley Laboratory.

Launch Vehicle: Argo. Argo sounding rockets measured radiation caused by the Project Argus high altitude nuclear explosions. The missiles reached 800 km altitude, launched from Wallops Island, AMR, and Ramey AFB, Puerto Rico.

Launch Vehicle: Black Knight.

Black Knight missiles of the United Kingdom was launched from the Australian range at Woomera to an altitude of over 500 km. Gamma engines were manufactured by Bristol Sidney and used on the Black Knight and Black Arrow launch vehicles. Propellants were High Test Peroxide and Kerosene. Black Knight used 4 chambers in two pairs on the Y and Z axes. The motors were gimballed to provide thrust in all axes. Black Knight was flown in both one and two stage versions. When fitted with a second stage, a solid propellant Cuckoo motor was used, manufactured at RPE Westcott.


Launch Vehicle: Nike-Asp. Nike-Asp ship-launched sounding rocket. Nike-Asp test flights from Navy LSD Point Defiance near Puka Island reached 250,000 m, the highest altitude ever reached by a ship-launched rocket, in preliminary tests for use in IGY solar eclipse studies.

Launch Vehicle: Terrier. Modified Navy Terrier missiles with cameras were used as sounding rockets. They were launched to an altitude of 140 km from Wallops Island, providing a 1,600 km composite photograph of a frontal cloud formation.

Launch Vehicle: Javelin. NASA/Canadian four-stage sounding rocket could reach altitudes of 850 km

Launch Vehicle: Iris. NASA Iris sounding rocket was designed for 45 kg payloads to altitudes of about 300 km from Wallops Station.

Launch Vehicle: Sparrowbee. Sparrowbee sounding rocket launched from Wallops Station could lift a 25 kg University of Michigan payload to 350 km altitude.

Launch Vehicle: Arcas-Robin. Arcas-Robin weather sounding rocket.

Launch Vehicle: Argus. NASA Bios (biological investigation of space).

Launch Vehicle: Black Brant. Canadian Black Brant rockets for upper-atmosphere research were capable of carrying a 70 kg payload to an altitude of 200 km.

Launch Vehicle: Roksonde.

Produced by Marquardt for the Army, Roksonde meteorological sounding rockets first completed a series of tests at White Sands Missile Range and Pacific Missile Range. They were later successfully fired from Cape Canaveral, telemetered measurements of winds and temperatures at altitudes above 600,000 m.


Launch Vehicle: Skylark. Skylark rockets were launched from Woomera in the joint United States-Australian ultraviolet survey of the southern skies.

Launch Vehicle: Trailblazer. NASA fired seven-stage Trailblazer rockets from Wallops Station. The first three stages took an artificial meteorite to 280 km altitude. The next four stages drove the payload back into the atmosphere in a high-speed reentry experiment.

Launch Vehicle: Vertikal. Soviet sounding rocket.

Launch Vehicle: LS-A. Early suborbital test version of the Lambda rocket series that would lead to Japan's first satellite launcher.

Launch Vehicle: LSC-3. Early suborbital test version of the Lambda rocket series that would lead to Japan's first satellite launcher.

Launch Vehicle: MR-12. Meteorological sounding rocket. Length 8.77 m, diameter 0.445 m. Sends payloads from 150 km to 170 km altitude. Payload section 1.55 m long, 0.445 m in diameter.

Launch Vehicle: Athena.

The Athena was designed to simulate the re-entry environment of an intercontinental ballistic missile and was one of the few examples of sustained interstate missile tests within the United States. The project was begun in February 1964 with the first of several hundred launches from Green River, Utah, to impact points in the US Army's White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. The vehicle would reach altitudes of over 300 km and peak velocities of 6700 m/s on a trajectory that would lead to impact 760 km from the launch point. By August 1965 85 flights had been completed in a series of 149 that was to run to 1969. The US Army ran the instrumented test range while the USAF Space and Missile Systems Organization was the program manager.


Launch Vehicle: ERIS.

Flight test vehicle for Exoatmospheric Re-Entry Interceptor Subsystem, an anti-ballistic missile hit-to-kill interceptor warhead. The ERIS vehicle itself consisted of surplus Minuteman ICBM second and third stages. Lockheed was awarded a five year contract in November 1985 worth at that time $ 490 million that included integration of the rocket. Four test vehicles were built. First launch was made on 28 January 1991 from Kwajalein Atoll against an Aries sounding rocket. A second test on 13 March 1992 against a Minuteman I was considered successful enough that no further tests were planned. Further develoment of the technology was to be accomplished by the Orbital Sciences' Aries test vehicle with spectacularly poor results.


Launch Vehicle: Payload Launch Vehicle.

Launch vehicle using surplus missile motors. PLV was part of the Boeing Lead System Integration (LSI) effort on the National Missile Defense (NMD) program. Lockheed Martin was the manufacturer and prime integrator. PLV used elements first seen on the ERIS program.


Launch Vehicle: Minotaur.

Minotaur, the first Orbital/Sub-orbital Program (OSP) Space launch vehicle, was scheduled for a late 1999 first launch. The OSP project office, located at Kirtland AFB, was tasked by the Air Force to convert and utilize excess Minuteman II missiles for government satellite delivery. Spaceport Systems International was selected to provide commercial launch services and the launch site for the OSP/JAWSAT mission. Spaceport operations consist of payload processing services provided in the Integrated Processing Facility (IPF) located on Space Launch Complex Six (SLC-6) and include launch services from facilities just south of SLC-6. The Minotaur launch vehicle was made up of modified Minuteman II Stage I and Stage II segments mated with Pegasus upper stages and avionics by Orbital Sciences Corporation (OSC). This program demonstrates the U.S. government’s commitment to utilize excess cold war assets for research and education, while at the same time using commercially available launch services to reduce their overall program costs, as directed by the Commercial Space Act of 1994.


Back to Index
Last update 3 May 2001.
Contact Mark Wade with any corrections or comments.
Conditions for use of drawings, pictures, or other materials from this site..
© Mark Wade, 2001 .