Recently, NASA Wallops Islands Flight Facility has been sending up a lot of Sounding Rockets, Suborbitals, into our atmosphere. But what exactly are they? And just what are they doing?

For more than 40 years, the Sounding Rocket Program at NASA has continuously provided scientific, educational and technical information that is critical to the space program. The sounding rocket program is one of the most versatile, robust, efficient, and cost-effective programs at NASA.

Since 2007, the Sounding Rocket Programs Office (SPRO), located at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center’s Wallops Flight Facility, has sent nearly 200 Sounding Rockets up to test a multitude of things; NASA aims to launch approximately 20 sounding rockets a year. The SRPO provides suborbital launch vehicles, payload development and field operations support to NASA and other government agencies. 

Sounding Rocket

Terri Snyder, sounding rocket technician, monitors attitude control system flight maneuvers on an air-bearing during testing at Wallops’ Sounding Rocket Fabrication, Test and Evaluation shop. Photo courtesy NASA

Sounding rockets carry scientific instruments into space in a parabolic trajectory in order to test or observe its mission. Each mission time in space typically lasts between 5 – 25 minutes, which is brief, and their vehicle speed is lower than a normal launch for a well-placed scientific experiment. This shorter time and speed is adequate, and in some cases ideal, for a successful scientific mission. 

The ampule doors on the sounding rocket payload are open during testing at the Wallops Flight Facility.
Credits: NASA/Berit Bland

The cost factor makes sounding rockets an attractive alternative as they do not need expensive parts such as boosters or extended telemetry and tracking coverage because they never go into orbit. Not only are sounding rocket missions carried out at very low cost, but the payload can be developed in a very short time frame – sometimes as quickly as three months! This rapid response enables scientists to quickly react to new events or phenomena, such as comets or meteoroids, and to incorporate the most up-to-date technology in their experiments.

Make sure to head over to Wallops Island Flight Facility to catch one of these Sounding Rockets head into space! The next launch at Wallops, mission ASPIRE III, is scheduled for July 24th. More Wallops events can be found here