Once a sleepy backwater largely focused on scientific research, the suborbital launch sector has boomed in recent years. Private companies and governments across the globe conducted 29 flights to test orbital and suborbital launch vehicles and a range of technologies last year.
A Chinese company launched a reusable suborbital vehicle that took off vertically and landed horizontally at an airport. A second Chinese company conducted a series of launches to support the development of a suborbital space tourism vehicle. South Korea tested two orbital rockets on three suborbital flights. Iran continued to develop satellite launch vehicles. An Indian company broke a government monopoly by launching the first private rocket from the subcontinent. And a Dutch company conducted the maiden flight of a new suborbital launcher.
Let’s take a closer look at these flights.
Suborbital Launch Vehicle Flight Tests
|Space Transportation (Beijing Lingkong Tianxing Technology)||Tianxing I||Suborbital space plane||Success||3|
|Tianxing II||Suborbital space plane||Success||3|
|AZSPACE||Reusable suborbital carrier||Flight test||Success||1|
|Ministry of National Defense||Solid-fuel Space Projectile||Flight test||Success||2|
|Perigee Aerospace||Blue Whale 0.1||Flight test||Success||1|
|Iranian Space Agency||Zulijanah||Flight test||Success||1|
|Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps||Qaem-100||Qaem-100 first stage test||Success||1|
|Ministry of Defence||Saman-1||Upper stage test||Success||1|
|Skyroot Aerospace||Vikram-S||Flight test||Success||1|
|Skyrora||Skylark 1||Flight test||Failure||1|
|T-Minus Engineering||Kingfisher||Flight test||Success||2|
Chinese Suborbital Launches
On August 26, the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) launched the Reusable Suborbital Carrier from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center. The vehicle flew a suborbital trajectory before landing horizontally on the runway at the Alxa Youqi Airport in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.
CASC said the second launch of the reusable carrier was a complete success. A maiden flight was conducted on July 16, 2021.
CASC has released very little information about its suborbital vehicle, which is believed to have a lifting body shape to allow it to glide to a runway landing.
Space and Hypersonic Programs
Space Transportation, a.k.a., Beijing Lingkong Tianxing Technology, said on its website that it conducted six test flights last year as part of its Tianxing program. The launches were split evenly between Tianxing I and Tianxing II rockets.
Space Transportation’s goal is to develop a suborbital spaceplane capable of carrying tourists and microgravity experiments on suborbital flights. A later variant would enable high-speed transportation between distant cities on Earth in less than two hours.
The company released very little information about the six launches. It’s not even clear where the flights took place, although Wikipedia indicates they might have been conducted from the Jiuquan spaceport.
The image above shows the evolution of the planned test vehicles. The suborbital vehicle would be 15 meters (49 feet) in length. The point-to-point vehicle would be almost 35 meters (115 ft) in size.
Space Transportation has published the following development schedule:
2019-2022: technology verifications through flight tests,
2023: flight test of suborbital space tourism prototype,
2025: crewed flight of space tourism vehicle,
2028: flight test of global hypersonic vehicle prototype, and
2030: completion of full-scale global hypersonic vehicle.
Space Transportation has raised $60.6 million in three funding rounds. The company announced a Series A round in August 2021 that totaled $46.3 million. Matrix Partners China and Shanghai Guosheng Group led the round with new investors Wuyuefeng Capital, Xiamen Feiyu Yinghang and Shanghai Huygens.
Previous investors Source Code Capital, Volcanic Stone Capital, Keke Li Venture Capital, Yuanhe Yuandian, and Zhencheng Investment also contributed to the Series A round. The five investors were part of a $14.3 million seed round that was announced in December 2019.
Source Capital led an angel round that was announced in March 2019.
South Korea Tests Three Launch Vehicles
On March 24, South Korean startup Perigee Aerospace conducted the third flight test of its Blue Whale 0.1 launcher from Jeju Island. The suborbital rocket tested technology for Blue Whale 1, a two-stage orbital booster powered by liquid oxygen and liquid natural gas.
Blue Whale 1 will be capable of placing satellites weighing 40 kg (88.2 lb) into a 500 km (310.7 mile) high sun-synchronous orbit (SSO), or 50 kg (110.2 lb) into a 500 km (310.7 mile) high low Earth orbit (LEO). Launches are planned from Whalers Way Orbital Launch Complex in Australia.
South Korea Suborbital Flights, 2022
|March 24, 2022||Perigee Aerospace||Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology||Blue Whale 0.1||Third flight test of smallsat launcher|
|March 30, 2022||Ministry of National Defense||—||Solid Fuel Space Projectile||Flight test|
|Dec. 30, 2022||Ministry of National Defense||—||Solid Fuel Space Projectile||Flight test|
Perigee has received investment from Samsung Venture Investments and LB Investment. The company has also received support from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), which is a national research institute.
Six days after Perigee’s launch, South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense launched the Solid Fuel Space Projectile with a dummy payload on a suborbital flight. The launch was part of a development program aimed at producing a booster capable of launching 500 kg (1,102.3 lb) satellites into orbit. The first orbital flight is scheduled for around 2024.
South Korea conducted a second suborbital test of the Solid Fuel Space Projectile on Dec. 30. The Ministry of National Defense said the flight was successful.
Skyroot Aerospace Makes History
Skyroot Aerospace made history on Nov. 18 when it became the first private Indian company to launch a rocket. The company reported that its suborbital Vikram-S rocket with three payloads reached an altitude of 89.5 miles (55.6 miles) during its maiden launch.
“Vikram-S rocket meets all flight parameters. It’s history in the making for India,” the company tweeted.
The 8-meter (26.2 ft) tall Vikram-S rocket is designed to launch payloads weighing 83 kg (183 lb) to an altitude of 100 km (62.1 miles).
Vikram-S is the first in a family of launchers that Skyroot is developing to launch satellites. The company’s orbital boosters will launch payloads ranging from 225 kg (496 lbs) to 720 kg (1,587 lb) depending upon the rocket used and the orbit desired.
Vikram Launch Vehicle Specifications
- 225 kg (496 lbs) to 500 km (311 mile) SSO
- 315 kg (694 lb) to 45 degree inclination at 500 km (311 mile) LEO
- Highly reliable solid propulsion stages with proven design heritage.
- Orbital Adjustment Module with re-start capability enables multi-orbit insertions.
- Requires minimal range infrastructure. Can be assembled and launched within 24 hours from any launch site.
- 410 kg (904 lb) to 500 km (311 mile) SSO
- 520 kg (1,146 lb) to 45 degree inclination at 500 km (311 mile) LEO
- Advanced methalox engine replaces third stage of Vikram 1.
- Upper stage cryo-engine with re-start capability enables multi-orbit insertions.
- Requires minimal range infrastructure. Can be assembled and launched within 72 hours from any launch site.
- 580 kg (1,279 lb) to 500 km (311 mile) SSPO
- 720 kg (1,587 lb) to 45 degree inclination 500 km (311 mile) LEO
- Upgrade to Vikram 2 with additional low-cost strap-on solid rocket boosters.
- Upper stage engine with re-start capability enables multi-orbit insertions.
- Requires minimal range infrastructure. Can be assembled and launched within 72 hours from any launch site.
The launch vehicles are named for Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, who is known as the father of Indian space program. The physicist and astronomer helped to found and served as chairman of the Indian National Committee for Space Research, which later became the nation’s space agency, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).
Skyroot is developing the Dhawan-1 engine for use in the upper stage of the Vikram II booster. The company said the engine, which will be powered by liquified natural gas and liquid oxygen, will be 100 percent 3D printed using additive manufacturing.
Skyroot was founded by three former Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) employees — Pawan Kumar Chandana, Naga Bharath Daka and Vasudevan Gnanagandhi. The company has raised $67 million to date. Skyroot has also forged cooperation agreements with ISRO to tap into the space agency’s expertise and test facilities.
Iran Ramps Up Booster Development
On June 26, Iran launched its new Zulianah satellite booster on a successful suborbital flight test for the second time. The launch was conducted from the Semnan Space Center in Northern Iran.
Zulianah is a three-stage launch vehicle designed to place a spacecraft weighing 220 kg (485 lb) or ten 20 kg (44.1 lb) CubeSats into a 500 km (310.7 mile) high orbit. The booster specifications are:
Length: 25.5 meters (83.7 ft)
Mass: 52 tons (114,640 lb)
First & Second Stages
Motor Diameter: 1.5 meter (4.9 ft)
Thrust: 74 tons (725 kN; 163,000 lbf)
Engine Diameter: 1.25 meter (4.1 feet)
Fuels: liquid (UDMH /N2O4)
Thrust: 3.5 tons (35 kN; 7,800 lbf)
Zulijanah is Iran’s third domestically developed launch vehicle; the other two are named Safir and Simorgh. It is the nation’s first satellite launcher to use a combination of solid- and liquid-fuel stages.
Zulijanah’s previous suborbital flight test was conducted on Jan. 31, 2021. Two additional additional test launches are planned.
Zulijanah can be driven to a location and launched using a transporter-erector system with limited preparation. U.S. and European analysts have expressed concerns that Iran might be using the program as a cover to develop an intermediate range ballistic missile.
On Oct. 3, Iran’s Ministry of Defence launched the Saman-1 rocket in a successful test of the booster’s upper stage.
Iran tested the first stage of the Qaem 100 launch vehicle during a suborbital flight conducted on Nov. 5. The three-stage, solid fuel rocket is designed to place an 80 kg ( lb) payload into a 500 km (311 mile) high orbit. Qaem 100 would have twice the payload capacity of the Qased booster.
Skyrora Launch Failure
Skyrora attempt to launch its Skylark L suborbital rocket failed on Oct. 8. Instead of reaching an altitude of 102 km (63 miles), the booster crashed into the Norwegian Sea 500 meters (1,640 ft) away from its launch site in Langanes, Iceland.
Skyrora said the booster suffered an anomaly after liftoff from the mobile launch platform. The company did not identify what caused the rocket to crash.
Despite the failure, Skyrora said the failed flight marked “another milestone on its way to commercial viability and the first vertical orbital launch from UK soil in 2023.” The launch team was able to test “critical processes and components” for the larger Skyrora XL rocket. Skyrora XL will be capable of launching up to 315 kg (694 lb) into orbit.
T-Minus Engineering of the Netherlands conducted the maiden flight of its Kingfisher suborbital rocket from the UK Ministry of Defence’s Hebrides Range in October. A second successful Kingfisher launch followed. The two boosters reached an altitude of approximately 185 km (115 miles).
Kingfisher is a solid-fueled rocket that is 4.5 meters (14.8 ft) long with a 215 mm (8.46 in) diameter and 25 kN of thrust.