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Sounding Rockets

Sounding rockets get their name from the nautical term “sounding,” which means to measure the depth of the water using a weighted line. Water depth used to be measured in fathoms (a fathom is 6 feet). "Fathom" also means "to understand" or "to comprehend," so, in a way, a sounding rocket helps us to measure and comprehend something.

Sounding rockets are low cost and provide the only means of making observations between the maximum altitude for balloons (about 30 miles or 48 kilometers) and the minimum altitude for satellites (100 miles or 161 kilometers).

A sounding rocket follows a parabolic trajectory — it goes up and comes back down. Flight time is usually less than 20 minutes. The sounding rocket is launched using a booster and a rocket motor. When the booster and rocket motor run out of fuel, they separate from the sounding rocket and fall back to earth. The payload continues into space and begins conducting the experiment.

The Sounding Rockets Program Office (SRPO), located at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center's Wallops Flight Facility, provides suborbital launch vehicles, payload development, and field operations support to NASA and other government agencies. SRPO works closely with the Sounding Rocket User Community to provide launch opportunities facilitating a broad spectrum of science applications.

The Sounding Rockets Program supports the NASA Science Mission Directorate’s strategic vision and goals for Earth Science, Heliophysics and Astrophysics. The approximately 20 suborbital missions flown annually by the program provide researchers with unparalleled opportunities to build, test, and fly new instrument and sensor design concepts while simultaneously conducting worldclass scientific research. Operations are conducted from fixed launch sites such as Wallops Test Range (Virginia), Poker Flat Research Range (Alaska), and White Sands Missile Range (New Mexico) as well as sites such as Andoya Rocket Range (Norway) and Esrange (Sweden). Launch operations are also conducted from mobile sites set up by the Wallops Test Range. Mobile "campaigns" have been conducted from Australia, Puerto Rico, Brazil, and the Kwajalein Atoll.

The mobile capability offered by the Wallops Test Range allows scientists to conduct their science "where it occurs". Coupled with a hands-on approach to instrument design, integration and flight, the short mission life-cycle helps ensure that the next generation of space scientists receive the training and experience necessary to move on to NASA’s larger, more complex space science missions. The cost structure and risk posture under which the program is managed stimulates innovation and technology maturation and enables rapid response to scientific events.

With the capability to fly higher than many low- Earth orbiting satellites and the ability to launch on demand, sounding rockets offer, in many instances, the only means to study specific scientific phenomena of interest to many researchers. Unlike instruments on board most orbital spacecraft or in ground-based observatories, sounding rockets can place instruments directly into regions where and when the science is occurring to enable direct, in-situ measurements.

The mobile nature of the program enables researchers to conduct missions from strategic vantage points worldwide. Telescopes and spectrometers to study solar and astrophysics are flown on sounding rockets to collect unique science data and to test prototype instruments for future satellite missions. An important aspect of most satellite missions is calibration of the space-based sensors. Sounding rockets offer calibration and validation flights for many space missions, particularly solar observatories such as NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), RHESSI, Hinode and SOHO.

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